Wick Communications

Is Tom Petty dead?

In journalism on October 5, 2017 at 3:37 pm

Tom Petty died this week. Then he came back to life, for a while.

CBS News, among others, reported that he was dead about mid-day on Monday. Shortly thereafter, one of the most respected names in news reported that he hadn’t, in fact, died. There are a lot of misdemeanors committed in journalism, but to be wrong about a death is pure felony. It’s extraordinarily hurtful to family and friends. It puts a cannonball-sized hole in your credibility. And it will make you the butt of jokes for years to come. (“The report of my death is an exaggeration,” Mark Twain told a newspaperman after another periodical actually printed his obit. That was 1897. The fact that you’ve heard that story before is all the proof you need that these stories stick around…)

The initial erroneous reporting on Petty’s death came from something someone at the Los Angeles Police Department said, apparently in an off-the-cuff discussion with a reporter. My guess is LAPD was on the scene when the famed musician was taken to the hospital, but did not file an official report as it wasn’t really the department’s case. Cops are people too and sometimes they gossip.

So, here’s the challenge: If you can’t believe the police, who can you believe?

Good question. Ordinarily, I would say if you get a news tip from a man or woman in blue, you are golden. For one thing, they tend to be tight-lipped. If they are telling you something, it’s probably true. Most likely. Almost always. … But not always. …

I think the lesson here is that the lingering pain of being wrong is much worse than the momentary thrill of being first. If you have a big story — someone famous has died in your market, say — the smart move is to double check it. Let TMZ be first. You just be right.

How do you do that? Ask the cop to go on the record, with his name. Make sure he has skin in the game. If he won’t do that, call the coroner. If he’s reticent to break news just ask him to confirm what you’ve already heard. Then you have two official sources. Call the deceased’s management company. Go to the scene.

But don’t rush.

Clay

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