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How the Media Accidentally Killed Tom Petty

According to an official statement, Tom Petty died last night at 8:40 p.m. PT, or just before midnight on the East Coast. Though it was a sudden and tragic end to the life of a rock and roll legend, Petty did in a sense live longer than expected, as he had been pronounced dead hours earlier by much of the media, including us at SPIN. Claiming that someone is dead who isn’t is one of the most serious reporting mistakes a journalist can make, and so it requires us to reflect on how and why it happened yesterday.

The first indication that Petty’s life was in peril came at 3 p.m. ET, when TMZ reported that he had been found “unconscious, not breathing and in full cardiac arrest” at his home in Malibu before being taken to UCLA Santa Monica Hospital, where he was placed on life support after paramedics were able to revive him. A half hour later, the site reported that “a decision was made to pull life support” because Petty “had no brain activity” after arriving at the hospital. The situation, obviously, seemed about as grave as possible, and another half hour after TMZ’s second update, CBS News reported that Petty had died, citing the Los Angeles Police Department. (The original tweet has been deleted but you can see the PT timestamp here via a New York Times’ Slack room.) A half hour after that, at 4:30 p.m. ET, Variety independently reported Petty’s death as well, though much of the internet—including Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork, and SPIN—had already followed CBS.

But at 4:35 p.m. ET, TMZ again updated its story to pump the brakes on the mourning of Petty’s life. That update read:

Sources tell us at 10:30 Monday morning a chaplain was called to Tom’s hospital room. We’re told the family has a “do not resuscitate” order on Tom. The singer is not expected to live through the day, but he’s still clinging to life. A report that the LAPD confirmed the singer’s death is inaccurate — the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. handled the emergency.

The news hung here for about eight more hours, until the official announcement of his death, but in the meantime resentment bubbled up over the confusion sparked by the back-and-forth reporting. This was broadcast most loudly by Petty’s daughter AnnaKim, who used Instagram to excoriate Rolling Stone for reporting her father’s death, writing in part, “@rollingstone my dad is not dead yet but your fucking magazine is”—a message that also doubled as the first confirmation from the Petty family that Tom was still alive.

The reason why the media at-large sped down the wrong path in reporting on Petty’s health can be traced back to that CBS pronouncement of his death, and the circumstances of that story and what spiraled from it reveal cracks in modern journalism that probably run too deep to ever be sealed. In the era of aggregation—which is to say, one news outlet reporting a piece of news, and hundreds of other outlets big and small reporting the existence of the reporting—speed still matters: each new aggregation of the original news, generally speaking, offers exponentially less value as you go down the rapidly forming line of aggregators. This is true for the aggregators themselves (from a traffic perspective) and to the public (if you’ve read one aggregation, you’ve read them all). This reality means that a big piece of news—say the death of a celebrity beloved by several generations of people—starts a game of dare among American newsrooms: At what point does a publication feel comfortable putting its reputation behind a piece of news that it can’t independently confirm? Picture every website you read perched on the edge of a cliff, looking down at the rocky water below, glancing at each other warily, trying to decide when to take the plunge.

Plenty of factors play into the decision to jump, but the main one is usually which outlet broke the news. The larger conversation that springs from this—who is able to be trusted, and when—pops up from time to time, most frequently surrounding TMZ, which takes a proudly ruthless approach to reporting, resulting in the publication of stories many news organizations might not feel comfortable touching, or at least in the manner eventually presented by TMZ. But that approach to journalism also means that TMZ has for years been consistently out in front of everyone on many stories, including ones of great importance. This, in turn, has led to plenty of one-time more established publishers grappling with having to take the word of a gutter-scraping tabloid or risk being at the ass end of that long line of aggregators. Media ombudsman Brian Stelter discussed this exact dilemma on CNN last year after Prince’s death (which was broken correctly by TMZ) with Janice Min, who at the time was the Chief Creative Officer of the company that owns The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard (and currently, though not at the time, this website).

In this hazy, scary world of Harvey Levin leading the blind, old guards still hold sway: NBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times (which held off on reporting Petty’s death), etc. CBS, of course, is part of that informally agreed upon upper crust of most trustworthy sources, and that, essentially, is the original sin of the Petty fiasco. But CBS, for whatever it’s worth, may have gotten played, too. The network not only put its weight behind the report of Petty’s death, but also cited the LAPD, and this combination of a reputable news organization deferring to an official authority is enough to convince pretty much everyone else waiting on the proverbial cliff to take the leap. But after other sources tried to confirm Petty’s death with the LAPD, the department, at 4:55 p.m. ET, revealed it had not and could not confirm Petty’s death, stating that “initial information was inadvertantly provided to some media sources.” In a statement to the New York Times, CBS agreed, saying, “CBS News reported information obtained officially from the LAPD about Tom Petty. The LAPD later said it was not in a position to confirm information about the singer.”

So what exactly happened between CBS and the LAPD, which according to the police itself, had “no investigative role in this matter,” a claim that makes sense since no crime was committed or even appeared to have been? One possibility is that there was some miscommunication between Los Angeles authorities over who was allowed to publicly release information about Petty’s health, but more likely is that someone in the LAPD had heard through the grapevine that Petty had died, and had then provided that information anonymously to someone at CBS, who, because they were in contact with the police, believed that information to be correct. Variety, at least, indicated that their independent report of Petty’s death, which was also attributed to the LAPD, was caused by the second scenario: “Citing a source, Variety reported at 1:30 p.m. PT that Petty had died,” a clarification to their story reads. “However, the LAPD has clarified that a statement ‘inadvertently provided’ incorrect information to media sources.”

A source like CBS citing the wrong information from an authority like the LAPD functions like a code specifically inputted to break a desperate and starving media industry, and this isn’t the first time it has happened. Back in 2012, after the massacre at Newtown, the media reported that the shooter’s name was Ryan Lanza, which triggered a race to dig up information on one of the worst mass murderers in American history, which then led to some media outlets linking to Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page, which in turn led to Lanza posting a status that read “Fuck you CNN it wasn’t me.” The shooter, it turned out, was actually Ryan’s brother Adam, with the inaccurate reporting and ensuing confusion stemming from a “law enforcement official” who “mistakenly transposed the brothers’ first names.” (CNN, like Rolling Stone in the case of Petty, was singled out for making the same fuck up as many of its competitors.)

You can again follow the logic. In times of tragedy, journalists are trained to trust the word of official authorities such as the police (which is funny since the police institutionally lie to the media in pretty much any other situation). In the age of aggregation, with the flow of information increasingly choked off to many people nominally employed as journalists, writers at certain publications are trained to trust the word of others at other publications. If the Jenga tower that is an online news cycle rests on the word of the police, and that block is removed, then the whole thing is going to come crumbling down. In this case, TMZ reporting that Petty “had no brain activity” made it believable that he had died soon after; in a more macabre sense, this is also a discussion about when exactly “life” ends. But, to invoke the image of another game, journalism, especially when it comes to life and death, is not horseshoes, and whatever gap exists between “no brain activity” and death led to a whole bunch of people getting this one wrong.

There are, once again, important lessons for journalists here about the value of independent reporting, of confirmation, and of quite simply waiting. Alas, the market that keeps journalists employed rewards speed and not necessarily truth. It has little use for those lessons, which sucks for us, and more importantly, for readers.