Media and the Mixed-Up Message

Pat Burns is not dead.  Neither are Gordon Lightfoot or Walter Gretzky.

But they all have been the subject of erroneous death reports that spread far, wide and shallow.  Yesterday the Burns story came out from several sources including TSN and others which a gal like me in a non-major media market is supposed to be able to safely assume have checked their facts and are reliable. On the air I went with the solemn update that after previously beating colon and liver cancers, the beloved former NHL coach had succumbed to lung cancer. 

My first indication a few minutes later that something was amiss was a Facebook update from CP24’s Stephanie Smyth that simply read, “Having a Gordon Lightfoot moment.”  Uh-oh.  We all remember how Gord was declared deceased a few months ago only to have the man himself phone Toronto media outlets to confirm otherwise.  After checking around for the update, back on the air I went to say, you remember when I said Pat Burns was dead?  Not so much. 

Someone somewhere didn’t properly do their job and rushed ahead in a bid to be first instead of accurate.  It’s a byproduct of having inexperienced (cheap!) staff and a 24-hour, relentless news monster that demands to be constantly fed.  Burns made a couple of phone calls and confirmed he was very much alive although not terribly well, suffering as he is with terminal cancer and refusing further treatments.  I’m embarrassed but I also don’t feel responsible for the mistake.  It’s not up to me to call the Burns family to confirm the worst; it’s up to those working at so-called trusted and reliable major media outlets and they really should do it before they release the story.

On a semi-related note a murder trial has been underway this week involving an actor who had a minor role in the 40 Year Old Virgin.  He stabbed his girlfriend 20 times and testified in his own defence that it was an “accident”.  The court saw through that and he was found guilty, however it was very difficult to find out whether the woman had survived.  Every story had a different take.  It either didn’t mention the woman’s present condition or it said alternately that the charge against him was “attempted murder” or “murder”.  Even this morning in my daily Free Press news update, the headline reads “murder”.  Finally the woman gave a statement which proved once and for all that while deeply traumatized and scarred she is indeed alive.  How does this happen?  Well one or two inexperienced or just plain incompetent reporters are feeding details from the courtroom which everyone else picks up and does the best they can with.  It’s not a major story so they probably don’t really care.  But I did and as the end user, I really ought to matter enough for them to get it right.