What if TMZ had been wrong?

bx-new-media-on-the-front-lAs news outlets sprang into action to report on Michael Jackson’s condition June 25, users on social media sites were whipped into a frenzy: He’s not breathing! He’s in a coma! He had a heart attack! And then a Facebook status update, made at 2:21 p.m., that Jackson had died.

Of course, 23 minutes later TMZ would become the first outlet to announce the singer’s death. What came next was a surprise. Before the RIPs and the “he touched us all” jokes, many users began posting jabs aimed at CNN — more specifically, its irrelevance as a news source. One person joked that TMZ ought to write an obituary about CNN’s death. Another user suggested that CNN spend more time reporting and less time advertising its Twitter page. But what if TMZ had been wrong?

Has technology’s ability to deliver information at such a rapid pace corrupted us? It’s one thing to marvel at how social media sites have helped spread Iranian news we might not have attained due to censorship — and with such timeliness; it’s quite another to have become a culture that prizes speed over confirmed facts. Have our standards for accountability dissolved?

“I’m not sure it’s technology that’s breaking down the barriers of accountability,” says Jeffrey Seglin, author of The Right Thing, a weekly ethics column published by the New York Times Syndicate. “The National Enquirer broke facts about the O.J. case before other media outlets did. Matt Drudge reported information on the Monica Lewinsky affair that Newsweek had been sitting on.” But that was the ‘90s, before gathering and spreading information was as easy as turning on your iPhone, anywhere, any time. Can you imagine if TMZ’s story spread on Twitter before Jackson’s family even learned of his death? And who was TMZ’s source anyway? The site’s managing editor, Harvey Levin, said he and his staff made hundreds of calls, but he didn’t divulge whom they spoke to, which makes one question whether they confirmed the news with a reliable, accountable source — as is required by the Los Angeles Times — or if they spoke to someone who was violating patient confidentiality.

When 19 employees at this same hospital, UCLA Medical Center, were busted in 2008 for snooping through Britney Spears’ confidential medical records, it was hard not to wonder why they’d have risked their jobs. Were they looking for a story to sell just as their colleague, Lawanda Jackson, had done? She was indicted in 2008 for selling information about Farrah Fawcett and accessing hundreds of other files. If that’s the case here, are we seriously going to trust people who’re willing to break the law for some fast cash?

“A curious thing is at play here,” Seglin continues. “Few people expect TMZ or Drudge or the National Enquirer to get things right or to report on issues of substance. When they do, at least so far, it’s a bit of an anomaly. So the consequences for getting it wrong among such sites do not seem terribly high. If CNN, Fox … got such things wrong, the consequences would likely be higher. That said, Fox News didn’t take as big a hit as it might have after it was revealed that the reports it filed on Sarah Palin not knowing Africa was a continent were based on a hoax.”

Maybe our cultural mentality has changed. If we’re going to let Fox off the hook for scratching up information and relaying it without fact-checking it first, perhaps we don’t care about journalistic integrity as much as we care about salacious status updates. Would TMZ take the same approach to a political figure, which in turn could pose a threat to national security? Let’s hope we never find out.

Published in Brand X and The Los Angeles Times on July 5, 2009. Learn more about my work at Brand X.

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Author: Alexandra Le Tellier

I am a journalist specializing in editorial strategy, storytelling and audience development within the digital and social space.