Media, Responsibility and the 280-Character Obituary That Shouldn’t Have Been

Even tabloids need to be held accountable for journalistic integrity and accountability 

Megan Amato // Associate News Editor 

I was in my seat during an intermission of the play Dirty Dancing at the Edinburgh Playhouse, and my sister-in-law had just gotten up to get refreshments for us both. I powered on my iPhone to check my messages only to stare down blankly at a Facebook message from my father: “Your mother is dead, this is not a joke. Call me.” It took me a few seconds to understand the message—confusion lingered due to the words “joke” and “dead” being used in the same sentence—before I burst into tears. Concerned patrons turned and patted my back and asked what was wrong, before telling me that I better rush home. I stumbled out of the theatre, tears streaking down my face as I searched for my sister-in-law. She found me after my sobs attracted the attention of others who had come to find out what was wrong. She ripped me away from the crowd, supported me under her arm and guided me out of the theatre. I had thought that receiving a Facebook message was the most impersonal and insensitive way to find out about a close family member dying. I was wrong. 

On Jan. 26, a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, five other adults and two teenagers crashed in Calabasas, California, killing everyone on board. The gossip site and celebrity tabloid TMZ reported on his death before the investigation had finished—and perhaps more importantly, before next of kin could be notified. This means that Vanessa Bryant, wife and mother, along with the crash victims’ family members potentially found out about the death of their loved ones in a tabloid before officials could notify next of kin privately. It means that people spread the news of their death across the world faster than officials could gather evidence to give a factual report. People all over the world grieved for those losses before the victims’ families could. I have no idea where their family members were when they learned the news of their loved ones’ death, but I hope it was someplace private and that they were surrounded by someone caring. But more than the premature and insensitive notice of death to next-of-kin, it meant that false information about the crash, including false deaths and inaccurate details, was spread across various news networks.  

There is an old adage that journalists hear from the very beginning: It’s better to be right than first. This proverb is undoubtedly used—maybe reworded and in different languages—in reputable newsrooms and publications across the world. I am a student journalist, have taken only one communications class to date and the importance of triple-checking facts and details over publishing first has already been ingrained in me. How then, did so many journalists, editors and media outlets miss the mark? Some may argue that TMZ isn’t, nor has ever been, a reputable news source. They’re a tabloid, meant to entertain and postulate on the lives of celebrities. Whilst TMZ tends to be more accurate and less speculative than tabloids such as the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star, their primary goal is to entertain, not to inform. However, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions that not only caused the victims’ families real grief but was the catalyst in spreading misinformation. Many of those who work for TMZ have journalism degrees. They had a responsibility and they failed. Don’t get me started on the legit news sources who ran with it.  

Part of the problem is America’s rather lax privacy laws, but the bigger issue is social media and how fast information is spread. Do me a favour: the next time you’re scrolling through Twitter and come across a buzz-worthy news story and start to retweet—stop. Read through the news source, examine who the news source is and determine their credibility. Try to find another credible source with a similar story, and think about who the story will affect. And if you’re in any journalistic position, whether it be a blog or working for the Globe and Mail, repeat after me: It’s better to right than first. Scratch that—it’s necessary to be right, not to be first.  

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