The rush to report an actor’s death

It was about 2:30 p.m. Sunday when my husband asked if I had heard the sad news that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died. I hadn’t. I was startled and moved in the same instant.

Hoffman was one of my favorite actors, and I affectionately called him PSH. My husband had read about the Oscar-winning actor’s untimely death on The New York Times website. By that time, it had already been out on social media for more than two hours.

An article posted on the news website Salon raises questions about whether it was necessary for the news media to tweet about it before authorities had officially confirmed Hoffman’s death and how he died. According to Salon, the Wall Street Journal tweeted as “breaking” news that the actor had died and then tweeted 17 minutes later that WSJ’s initial report was confirmed. In those 17 minutes, the Salon report says, the news spread quickly. Other news outlets jumped on the story and prefaced their own “writeups and retweets with disclaimers like, ‘no confirmation yet, but …’”

As an editor who worked in daily newspapers, I often confronted situations where we had information but were unable to get immediate confirmation from official sources. The decision to publicize information is not cut and dried; there are many factors to be considered before giving the go-ahead to tell the public about something newsworthy – in this case, the death of a famous public figure.

The Salon piece mentions the possibility that Hoffman’s family and children may not have known about the tragedy before the first tweet was sent. The article quotes a “media trainer” who says publishing news about a death before family members are notified is not unusual in the age of the Internet. “[T]here’s no longer a hard and fast consensus around withholding names,” Philips Media Training founder Brad Phillips told Salon.

Journalists must take great care in reporting breaking news. If Hoffman were not a well-known public figure, news of his death likely would have been reported in a routine manner (according to official sources). But in this case, I can see why WSJ went with it. But if I had been in that situation, I would have been one of the editors urging to wait until the confirmation was official.

What do you think about tweeting news of a tragedy before it has been confirmed by official sources? Please comment below.

Follow me on Twitter @karenmichel.

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