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Public editor: In ABC’s Tony Scott error, a lesson about anonymous sources

Here's a cautionary tale on what can go wrong in the rush to be first.

I saw this first from the Poynter Institute, which studies journalism. It noted that ABC News inaccurately reported that Top Gun director Tony Scott had inoperable brain cancer, citing a "source close to him."

The Globe and Mail published an Associated Press story Monday, which said Mr. Scott died after jumping from a Los Angeles bridge and that he had left behind notes to his loved ones. Initially when doubts were first raised, ABC did not retract its story, but rather included an UPDATE at the top of the article which says: "The family of director Tony Scott…was not aware Scott had cancer, Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter told ABC News station KABC…ABC News was unable to reach Scott's family to confirm the assistant chief coroner's statement."

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Now I have many questions about this.

1. Who is this source close to him? If the family told the coroner they didn't know he had brain cancer, it wasn't them. Was it his doctor or other medical personnel? Who else other than a family member or a doctor could say for certain that he had brain cancer and that it was inoperable? Of course ABC can't reveal its source, but they have to stand behind their decision to publish it as a fact.

2. Did ABC not try to confirm this with another source before reporting this sensational news? Normal journalism practice is that you rarely use a single source off the record and if you do, that single source has to have direct knowledge of the fact and be unassailable.

The Poynter Institute in the U.S. teaches journalism teachers, active journalists and students about how to be better at the craft. The group also does a great job writing online about journalism issues of the day. As Andrew Beaujon of Poynter notes, the ABC story was picked up by Vanity Fair, the Huffington Post and People, which attributed the story to the ABC report. The latest is that ABC is now wobbling in its certainty. The headline now says the Brain Cancer Report Appears in Doubt.

At what point does ABC say it was wrong?

Do you have any thoughts on this? If so, please comment below or send me an e-mail at

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More


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