Michael Jackson's death and its lessons for online journalists covering breaking news

Every major breaking news events offers its lessons to the news organizations that covered it. And today’s death of singer Michael Jackson should lead newsrooms to reexamine how they handle breaking news in a hyper-competitive, instant-publishing environment.

I wrote last week about how news consumers used Twitter to express their displeasure, in real time and with a critical social mass, with CNN over the news network’s coverage of the developing election protests in Iran. Yesterday, Twitter again became the forum for a global event, as millions gathered on the microblogging site to share rumors about, then to confirm, then to mourn Jackson’s death.

AOL’s celebrity gossip site TMZ appeared to have been the first to report the singer’s death. Other news organizations, appropriately, waited to confirm Jackson’s passing themselves before reporting the news.

But thousands of Twitter users did not wait for additional confirmation before retweeting TMZ’s report, or sending out their own tweets about Jackson’s death. Even after the Los Angeles Times confirmed the passing, other news organizations held back before publishing the news to their Twitter feeds and e-mail alert lists.

Digital journalism leader Steve Buttry nailed the problem, appropriately enough, on his Twitter feed:

Should Washington Post and NY Times rebrand their news alerts as news “reminders”

This, after previous tweets:

Half hour or so after Twitter told me Michael Jackson died, Washington Post email alert caught up. Still waiting for NY Times “alert.”

@semayer & @conniecoyne The surprise isn’t that Twitter or TMZ are first, but the time lag between them and WaPo & NY Times “alerts.”

News organizations do not need to fall in line behind sources such as TMZ when a report like Jackson’s death breaks. The Twitterverse’s been wrong about alleged celebrity deaths before. But in this situation, smart news organizations should acknowledge to their followers and readers that they know the report is out there and that people are talking about it, and report where the organization is with its own reporting.

How hard would it be to tweet: “TMZ reports Jackson has died. We cannot confirm. Working on details”? Or “No confirmation on rumors about Jackson’s death. We’re in contact with authorities”?

The trouble is, of course, that it’s hard for the person making the calls to confirm the story to take time to tweet it. Or to update the website. Not to mention the site’s discussion forums, e-mail lists or Facebook page.

Which brings me to my first lesson from Jackson’s death:

In a breaking news situation, assign some to report and some to publish. But don’t ask anyone to do both.

Perhaps a few hyper-efficient bloggers can work the phones, monitor the Twitterverse, update social networks and write for the website… all at the same time. But newsrooms with multiple staffers on hand at any given moment shouldn’t have to rely on a single person to step up and assume the role of multimedia superstar. Large staffs (even diminished ones) remain traditional newsroom’s competitive advantage during breaking news. Why waste it?

Editors should divvy assignments, putting one staffer in charge of monitoring and updating Twitter, another to handle forums and Facebook, and others to work the phones or scene to report. The team must communicate clearly and continuously so that information flows swiftly and the paper’s readers and followers remain as up-to-date as anyone in the newsroom.

Yes, this means acknowledging rumor. But, as Twitter showed today, traditional newsroom silence on rumors don’t make them go away. Engaging with the audience in these confusing moments helps establish to your readers that your news organization is plugged in, responsive and working for them. No, you shouldn’t be reporting unconfirmed reports as fact. (And I haven’t suggested that anyone should.) But the worst thing you can offer you readers on Twitter is silence. Report on your reporting, if that’s all you have. Readers will appreciate the transparency.

So let’s go to lesson number two, and something that readers will not appreciate:

It’s time to drop e-mail as a breaking news medium

E-mail remains a great way to communicate with readers who prefer that medium. Many readers love to get regular updates on what is available on a website, so that they can keep in touch no matter whether they’re able to check the site on their own or not. And e-mail’s also an excellent choice to let readers know about enterprise stories or other exclusives that the news organization is breaking.

But doing as Buttry described, and sending a “breaking news alert” hours after everyone from Helsinki to Honolulu has been tweeting the news just embarrasses the news organization. There’s no better way to reinforce the message, “Hi, just to remind you: We’re clueless and slow!”

Better not to send the e-mail at all. Twitter’s become the go-to medium for breaking news. It’s past time to retire the e-mail “breaking news” list for these kinds of minute-by-minute events. Leave e-mail as a follow-up to expose readers to truly unique reports and perspective, once you have them reported and available.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia page had also been updated long before mainstream news outlets (the journalism “Gods”) had reported his death. And one LA Times reporter jumped the gun on Twitter and had to retract… except that information released to the Twitterverse is done so can-of-worms style. There is no turning back once it’s out there. The whole thing was quite a mess. Perhaps SPJ needs to release an official Twitter ethics guide.

  2. says:

    It is pretty ridiculous to think first Twitter has or for that matter ever will have the reach and the veracity of major journalism web sites, or for that matter that with the exception of a Michael Jackson death, it will ever have the interest.

    Twitter is still mostly a rumor mill for the tech savvy and often for people already interested in a particular subject.

    The news media e-mails reach a far bigger audience, carry an air of established authority with them and reach people who may have better things to do than constantly check out what the latest is on Michael Jackson, but yet want to keep up on what is happening.

  3. Apparently Jackson has dethroned Elvis! Already Michael Jackson’s fan base is showing their support. A new tshirt is being sold which bares the silhouette of Jackson and the words “Long Live the King” under it. Do you think this is right?

  4. Brett Lieberman says:

    I love Twitter. I find it entertaining and often useful for keeping up on news, gossip and what friends are up to. According to TwitDir (http://twitdir.com/search_lite.php), there are 3.3 million Twitter users. By comparison, Wikipedia claims there 271 million cell phones are in use in the U.S. alone and more than 4 billion worldwide.

    I was at swim practice when my BlackBerry started vibrating with news alerts from the NY Times, USA Today and other newspapers that informed me Michael Jackson had been taken to the hospital and later about his death. I forwarded one on to my wife.

    The fact is that the majority of the world does not use Twitter. It may one day or it could end up being a passing fad. I have Twitter access on my BlackBerry, but I wasn’t reading it at the time. The news alerts pushed the news to me.

    Regardless, e-mail news alerts from news organizations remain a useful technique to quickly disseminate news electronically and steer traffic to their Web sites. Not everybody is glued to CNN, FOX, news radio or news Web sites.

    You are right, though, that news alerts should be timely and not hours after the fact as you suggest.

  5. Robert, Sorry, but I disagree. Yes, those who are tweeting, looking at RSS feeds, and such will be aware of major breaking news.

    Others, though, rely on email and may on their Blackberries be looking mainly at an email feed. Or simply still have the email habit and happen to check that before their TweetDeck or iGoogle. We should give folks the option to get their news how they want it.

  6. says:

    Like those who declare print dead, this post ignores the reality that people get news in many different ways. The Blackberry crowd is large. Those who use Twitter (I do) are outnumbered by those who don’t. This isn’t a zero-sum equation.

  7. says:

    I do think you may be overstating the fact that “everyone” has been Tweeting the news. Many people have lives and aren’t attached to their iPhone or Blackberry. To those people, a breaking news e-mail alert is still useful.

    I love Twitter and Facebook, but I think the arrogance of some of the evangelists is off-putting to the rest of the world. Just because you are surrounded by thousands of people in your Twitter network doesn’t mean your real-life next-door neighbor is.

    Maybe we should hold off on killing breaking news e-mail alerts, just because it makes us look “lame” to the Twitterverse.

  8. says:

    What percent of people have and use email? What percent are on Twitter? That answers your question about moving news alerts to Twitter. The market isn’t there yet.

  9. says:

    I agree with the idea the LA or NY Times or CNN should have posted something to the effect of “We are still waiting to confirm MJ’s death” while TMZ was already confirming it.

    But, I still think the LA/NY Times & CNN played it right. For all we know, TMZ never received confirmation that he had indeed passed away. They are the only organization that was willing to gamble on being wrong because they aren’t a tremendously credible outlet anyway. If they are wrong, they say “oh, sorry, we missed that one.” If they are right, they look brilliant. They had nothing to lose.

  10. I want to reiterate that I am not asking news organizations to dump e-mail alerts. I’m simply asking them to acknowledge that if they can’t get an alert e-mail out immediately on an event like this – and yesterday showed that they cannot – then they should reserve the e-mail alert for links to unique coverage and criticism when those are available.

    Sending an “alert” e-mail hours after an event’s been reported in other media embarrasses a news organization in front of those who do monitor multiple media.

  11. I didn’t make a tech argument against e-mail in my piece, but I should have.

    While individual e-mails can reach their destination quite swiftly, anyone who has administered a large (tens of thousands or more) e-mail list should know that large e-mail blasts can take several minutes, and sometimes hours, to reach every destination in box.

    You simply cannot guarantee timely delivery of ultra time-sensitive information using the e-mail medium.

    Yes, e-mail’s great, but for less time sensitive data, such as links to completed stories, reviews, etc. Leave the one-sentence, it’s-happening-now alerts for Twitter, SMS, TV chryons and the Web.

  12. says:

    Robert, I think you’re missing the point. It’s not just about who had it first, it’s about serving viewers/readers. Not everyone is on Twitter or subscribes to every email alert. To wait and send out an email only with “unique content” would be a disservice to a news outlet’s audience. I think that connecting with a large audience is more important then looking good to a few on Twitter.

  13. says:

    I find your comments sensationalist. Get rid of email alerts? Why? Twitter is not a more immediate medium. The problem is when an organization pushes the button to publish to a specific medium – not the medium itself. Everyone uses email, a fraction of everyone uses Twitter. Twitter along side email? Yes. Plus Facebook, a website, mobile and, oh heck, a print edition hours and hours later for the poor sods who think that reading about a pop icon’s death hours after it happens is an acceptable practice.

    -Tim Nott

  14. “Twitter is still mostly a rumor mill for the tech savvy and often for people already interested in a particular subject.”

    This may have been true last year, but it’s certainly not the case now. The fact of the matter is that social networking is here to stay… as internet access continues to expand to the palms of the masses. Yes, traditional news outlets will still have niche markets, but the term “mass media” belongs to Twitter, and every innovation of SMS style updates that will come in its wake. It’s only a matter of time before Millennials replace older generations as the consumer powerhouse. And how many 20-somethings today do you think receive email alerts?

  15. says:

    How is this ultra-time-sensitive news at all? This was not a 9/11-type event, nor was it our president who died. This was a singer, not a world leader. Furthermore, he wasn’t murdered, so we aren’t on a manhunt for the killer or anything like that. Does it really matter if we find out the instant it happened or a few hours later? The most important issue for the major news outlets was to confirm the story, not spread rumors like you can on twitter or on a trashy celebrity gossip site like TMZ. No one’s life was adversely affected by not hearing that a singer died until it could be confirmed.

  16. says:

    Twitter-dum, Twitter-dee.

    Ah, yes, the arrogance of the new, improved, faster than fast, Twitter medium. We can contract all of our communications, overlook eloquence and context and fact, because this NEW medium is so, like, right now, like, it’s happening, like, this very moment, like, now!

    The medium is the message. And Twitter is saying…?

  17. says:

    Back in the good ol’ days, before ‘puters, newsrooms were organized just as you suggest, phoners, street, rewrite, copy runners, edit desk, then on to the typesetters. The ‘edit desk’ should be the place from which all finished copy is disseminated and to which all raw copy is sent. The current way, with reporters doing their own rewrite and editing as well as typesetting and sometimes layout… well, it ain’t workin’. Throw in the electronic stuff, and you got chaos on breaking news.

    As you say, on breakers, at least two people should be in charge of placing finished electronic copy. I would take it one step further. They should have NOTHING to do with either the reporting or editing. They should be typesetters, nothing more.

  18. says:

    I’d rather our news outlets were right but slow than quick and wrong.

    It shocks me how many stories about MJ in the past have been totally incorrect (ie – bones of the elephant man, skin bleaching, his Elizabeth Taylor shrine, sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber… the list goes on and on). Not to mention all the people who were paid for news tips in 1993, who said they witnessed MJ molesting Macaulay Culkin or some other unfounded garbage that was proven untrue in the 2005 trial. Remember, TMZ accepts money for news tips. They also grant anonymity to their sources more than any mainstream news outlet could stomach. It’s easier to break news when you play by TMZ’s rules. TMZ’s “reporting” must be taken with a grain of salt, regardless of how much they say they substantiate claims.

    As I write this, in the scramble for updates, some news outlets are suggesting MJ’s doctor was somehow complicit in the pop star’s death. It could be true BUT there’s no evidence of this yet. Let’s avoid unfairly damaging the reputation of a health professional. Slow down and don’t lose your heads!

    I’m a journalist myself, and a Michael Jackson fan. I remember telling my boyfriend about 3 weeks ago — Michael Jackson stories online are wrong more often than right, and that’s shocking. It’s like the standard rules of reporting don’t apply to MJ. The worst was the 2005 child molestation trial. The news coverage left the impression that, despite a lack of evidence, he was probably guilty. In retrospect, most people familiar with the case admit the media messed up in 2005 — MJ was a naive, trusting, and disorganized star who was likely taken advantage of by a sketchy family with a history of dishonesty and latching onto celebrities. I exempt a few reporters, including the AP’s Linda Deutsch. (Jackson actually called Deutch after the ordeal to thank her for giving him fair coverage. She discusses it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0YfRDQ3-Xc.)

    I respect the Times et al for having the self-restraint to verify claims of MJ’s death before posting the news online.

    Remember — journalism hasn’t lost the respect of the public because we’re “slow” or post updates a few minutes late. We’ve lost their respect because we get things wrong and skim the surface.

    And I agree — this wasn’t 9/11. Who cares if people found out a little late? It’s not going to bring MJ back. Now, it’s the media’s job to cover MJ’s passing responsibly, and hopefully get his story straight — for once.

    Amanda Smith-Millar
    Winchester, Canada

  19. says:

    Sadly, it sounds like jealousy on the part of the news media. Major news sources are making excuses, everything from their delivery source (email) is now outdated to the fact it takes too much time to update all media outlets – why? Because they didn’t report it first. Bottom line. Which also means that they wish THEY had been first. This whole article is one big “how can WE be first”. That is truly more sad than the fact TMZ broke the news.
    Seriously, would this conversation be taking place if CNN or NYT announced Michael Jackson died before anyone else on the planet?
    I can answer that – no it would not.

  20. says:

    I’ve been on Twitter for the past month, and I can tell you that after signing up and subscribing to a couple of the news feeds, I hear about breaking news first on Twitter. And you can see what is going on in the Twitterverse by looking at the Trending Topics list. When Shaq was traded, Shaq’s name appeared in the Trending Topics list. Also when the Jeff Goldblum rumor was being spread, it appeared in Trending Topics. A click on that link showed Twitterites were dismissing the rumor. I haven’t seen any “false” news on Twitter. If there is, it’s quickly shouted down.

  21. says:

    I’m late to this party, but I’d like to explain why I still want e-mail alerts.

    I was at a play that whole evening. Completely away from any electronic media. My phone was off, as is the protocol in a play. Not on silent mode, not turned on during intermissions. Why? Because I wanted to be fully in the play, not constantly leaving it to check in with the rest of the world.

    There are people who want constant contact via Twitter and don’t care what they interrupt. But I don’t. As major as these deaths might be to some, in my own life they were minor, and could wait until I was ready to hear about them. My NYTimes e-mail alert led me later to an updated story that was factual. And that did not overplay the mystery of the doctor because they had empty airtime to fill, as the cable news people did.

    I agree that Twitter has its place with breaking news, but if we give in to getting all our information as rumors, we won’t know anything.