The perils of the new media universe were exposed last Friday in the Pat Burns-is-dead fiasco. A perfect storm of assumptions, breakdowns in protocol and greed for scoops produced the embarrassment of the former NHL coach - who's battling terminal cancer - phoning up major sports news outlets to say, "I'm not dead yet."
The story had its genesis in wire service reports describing Burns taking a turn for the worse in Quebec last Thursday. The next day, a shaken Toronto Maple Leafs executive Cliff Fletcher told several reporters that he'd heard Burns had passed away. It made sense in the context of the previous day's story about Burns's declining health. Without consulting Burns's family or double checking the story, Damien Cox of The Toronto Star reported Fletcher's story on his Twitter account. Within an hour the story was viral. (twitpic.com/2pbckt)
The FAN 590 broadcast a prepared obit during Andrew Krystal's show. Wire services picked up the story. The Globe & Mail, Canadian Press and Rogers Sportsnet did not report the story, because they had not verified it with a second source. But with today's "this-just-in" culture, a significant portion of mainstream media and blogosphere ran with the story-- till Burns himself phoned TSN's Bob McKenzie a couple of hours later to say he was out shopping, not checking out.
Typical was Vancouver's all-sports station TEAM 1040, where former NHLer Ray Ferraro, now morning drive co-host, received an e-mail from a trusted source. He went with the incorrect report on-air. Ferraro's report was subsequently sourced by a number of people. "I should have called [TSN colleague]Bob McKenzie to verify it," a contrite Ferraro told Usual Suspects Friday. "He's a friend of Pat's. I was wrong. I can tell you it will never happen again. Never. I just wish I could tell Pat and his family how embarrassed and sorry I am about this."
Krystal echoed Ferraro, telling Usual Suspects that mistakes were made in verification. "It will not happen again on my show. I plan to apologize Monday to the Burns family."
At least Ferraro and Krystal wore the blame. Cox offered no apology, explaining it away as "an honest mistake" on the part of a distraught Fletcher. No mention of having failed himself to get a primary source with the Burns family or a secondary source to verify the story - the basics of reporting. This was no honest mistake, just a breakdown in the reporting process to claim primacy on a hot-sounding story. Blaming Fletcher was self-serving.
This is not about throwing stones. Everyone makes mistakes at some point in this business. (We've had ours in almost 30 years of TV, radio and print.) Not all mistakes are equal. There are sloppy typos, attribution issues and, like the Burns story, there are stories that are just plain wrong. Some can be eliminated by alert editors, others by a good spell check and still others by a trusty BlackBerry. And when you make 'em, emulate Ferraro, not Cox.
The biggest culprit these days, however, is the speed with which social media allows for instantaneous reporting and bragging rights to breaking stories. In the days before the Internet, the Burns story would have been phoned into a desk where an editor or producer would have demanded a second source before the story was moved. But with a reporter eager for a scoop able to circumvent the process, that step is often missed.
This BlackBerry immediacy is how we have trade deadline shows where we learn, "Spuds McMuffin has just been traded. We don't know where. We don't know who for. But he's been traded." Trusting the source, the rest of mainstream media and the blogosphere follow suit. Ninety-nine per cent of the time the story eventually bears out, but this doesn't forgive the 1e per cent of the time that a story is wrong.
So Burns joined Bill Cosby, Neil Young and, yes, Mark Twain as people who found out they've been declared dead.
Mystery Man: Didn't know that Vince McMahon was programming The FAN 590 these days. The commercials for the mystery morning drive show last week host smacked of the WWE's "wrestler from parts unknown". If you believe in the host, use his name. Andrew Krystal. Besides it way easier to spell than Stroumboulopoulos.