For about 20 minutes today, I was completely distracted by my day job as I started thinking about the obituary for Gordon Lightfoot I was going to have to write when I got home. I pondered his place in the Canadian pantheon relative to the legions of more famous ex-pats we still call “ours.” I considered the evolution of Canadian folk music into its modern, more alternative forms. I thought about how one ages gracefully while still recording, and how one records gracefully while still aging.
Then Gordon Lightfoot came back to life.
I admit my part in spreading the word about the singer-songwriter’s reported death but accept no blame; I thought I had done due diligence. We’ve seen enough premature killings on Twitter – from Jeff Goldblum to Lady Gaga – that most of us know better than to simply repeat digital rumour as fact. So when I asked Twitter if there was any truth to the rumours going around, I was shocked and saddened to get a reply with a link to a Montreal Gazette story. Seconds later, another reply with a link to the National Post. Shortly thereafter, the Calgary Herald. Trusting that the journalistic legwork had been done, I reposted the articles on Twitter and Facebook to share the news and began to consider my own piece on a legend’s passing.
Seconds later, though, the story turned. First, the articles began disappearing from all of the above-mentioned news sites. Secondly, Twitter users began reporting that the story may have been a hoax. Sure enough, outlets like the Globe and Mail, CBC and CTV not only had confirmation from Lightfoot’s manager that the singer-songwriter was alive and well but actual quotes from the man: “I haven’t had so much airplay on my music now for weeks,” he joked to news radio station CP24.
What happened? Details are a bit scattered. Some have suggested that the rumours started on Twitter, but I’ve also read reports that the origin may have come from either someone prank-calling a news outlet as Ronnie Hawkins or someone pranking Ronnie Hawkins (who may have been a source for the news story).
But all the post-incident news stories blaming this on “Twitter rumours” are just chickenshit to call out the real culprit. Let’s be honest: this story would have started and ended with childish chatter had it not been reported as truth by the websites of several legitimate news outlets (and the National Post…sorry, couldn’t resist).
There are two things worth noting about this fiasco. The first, obviously, is that every one of the outlets that reported the false death notice is owned by the newly-bankrupt CanWest Global Corporation. This wasn’t a case of several journalists jumping on a bandwagon: this was a single story decision by a single news entity with the reach to push the story across dozens of digital outlets simultaneously, each targeting different regions of the country. Media concentration in the digital age means that a one report can quickly seem like several, reinforcing the legitimacy and accuracy of a story even if it deserves neither.
The second stems from the decision to run the story in the first place. We don’t know what sources CanWest was relying on for their story – their subsequent piece mentions the Hawkins connection but says nothing of the decision to publish the story and lacks any sort of mea culpa – but judging by the speed at which other outlets got comment from Lightfoot’s manager, its clear that CanWest hadn’t gone through the most basic of due diligence. Historically, running such a story without even a cursory call to the subject in question would be heresy. Today, it seems to happen all too often.
Do news outlets not realize that we expect more from our fourth estate? I understand the temptation to view mediums like Twitter and shameless ambulance-chasers like TMZ as competition. They’re quick, and news outlets have always showed a bias towards being first with the story. But the traditional stalwarts of journalism need to come to terms with the fact that they will NEVER be faster than the Internet, nor should they accept the willingness to be wrong that lesser outlets openly court. The first rule of competitive differentiation is simple: either be better than your competitors or be different. Credibility is what keeps journalism different, and it’s not worth throwing away in a futile quest to be first.
When Gordon Lightfoot does pass away, traditional news outlets may not be the first ones with the story. But if they’ve done their job right, they will be first to confirm its validity. Their articles will be the ones I use to share the news. And they’ll be the ones that get me thinking about what a legend meant to me and to this country. That should mean something. That’s something worth holding onto.
*credit to NOW Magazine for screen-capping the original story, which I was kicking myself for neglecting.