Reporting the News: If You Ain’t First, You’re Last

Is it more important to be first or to be right when reporting the news? When reporting the news today, to steal a quote from fictional race car driver Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Take for example the sad news of Michael Jackson’s death yesterday. AOL-owned TMZ was the first to report that Jackson had died. And sadly, they did get it right.

You have to wonder whether TMZ really talked to a source, or rather just gambled and got it right. Does it matter? Had TMZ been wrong, we would have forgotten in a couple of hours. Instead, they were mentioned as the source by every news organization (not to mention in thousands of tweets). I’m sure there are thousands of people who had never heard of TMZ before yesterday.

What concerns me most about all of this is how quickly rumors have become the news. No longer do we wait for a factual report. In the hour following the TMZ report, most news organizations reported what TMZ had said, but wouldn’t confirm themselves (basically perpetuating the rumors until they could confirm their report or tear TMZ a new one for getting it wrong). Yesterday’s events were the perfect example of process journalism in the Twitter era, as each news outlet gradually updated their stories with the most recent facts (really more first-hand accounts from the scene).

While there is little harm that can come from misreporting celebrity news, what if it were a report about a public safety issue? Could this rapid rumor spread cause a riot? Probably not, since the wisdom of crowds would prevail among those connected to the Web, but it’s interesting to consider as our speed of communication accelerates.

While we lost a music legend and American icon yesterday, TMZ won the news race. I still have more respect for news organizations like the LATimes or CNN that seemed to wait for the facts before posting the story. Then again, maybe they were just slower on the draw. Either way, it’s still hard for me to trust a gossip blog as a legitimate news source. The sad but unfortunate reality to all of this is the first to report (and get it right) is the most credible. As dumb as it sounds, if you ain’t first, you’re last.

Update: As I’m typing this, TMZ is breaking another story. They’re claiming that police are looking for Jackson’s doctor, who may have given Jackson an injection shortly before his death (family members earlier told TMZ they had been concerned about the amount of Morphine Jackson was taking). If you glance at some of the tweets coming out right now about TMZ’s report, it’s alarming how many misquote and get the facts of the story wrong.

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