Breaking the news too fast 

23 June 2008

Link by Link – Delaying News in the Era of the Internet – New York Times

Normally when a death occurs occurs out of the public eye, steps are taken to hold back the news out of courtesy until next of kin have been informed. This is particularly true when the death is that of a public figure.

Thus, when NBC News presenter Tim Russert died over a week ago on June 13 – subject of this month’s lead article in Transdiffusion, the network held back public announcement of the news until it could inform Russert’s family, just returned from holiday in Italy at the time, as well as preparing its own obituary coverage.

NBCs efforts to preserve a sense of decency in the Internet age were in vain, however, as Wikipedia – or at least, one of its contributors – got there quicker.

Russert collapsed as the result of a heart attack at about 1:40pm, according to the New York Times, and he was pronounced dead after his arrival at a local hospital around 2:30, while NBC News colleague Tom Brokaw made the on-air announcement just over an hour later. Major newspapers carried the news a few minutes earlier.

However the Wikipedia entry for Tim Russert was updated just thirty minutes after he had been pronounced dead, including the date of death and editing of verbs from present to past. NBC staff were surprised to learn of the update, having taken steps to delay their own announcement and securing the agreement of other networks to do the same. “We wanted to be sure, absolutely certain, that every member of Tim’s family who needed to be told in person, in private, had that opportunity, was given that small piece of grace today. Other organizations did not do that,” said MSNBC host Keith Olbermann as reported in the New York Times.

Keith Olbermann remembers Tim Russert (above)

The record of changes at Wikipedia indicated that the edits were made by someone at Internet Broadcasting Services in St Paul, Minnesota. A junior employee, who apparently made the update, was later fired.

The information was on line for just ten or so minutes before the edits were redacted by someone else at IBS – although half an hour later the news was made public and the Wikipedia article was re-edited again.

In theory, Wikipedia’s principles include the idea that there should be no original research published on the site: information has to have appeared somewhere else reputable beforehand. But this kind of thing has happened more than once, generally involving the death of celebrities, when a person’s page has been updated as soon as the news has become known by someone, somewhere out there.

In the world of journalism, a scoop – getting the story out first – has always been a prime directive. However, that determination has always been tempered with respect, especially when it comes to informing families of the dead officially before an announcement is made. Regrettably, new media have less of a traditional sense of decency.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
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