How The Media Avoids Getting Celebrity Death News Wrong

CNN’s major gaffe with the supreme court health care ruling and premature reports about Nora Ephron’s death are a reminder that especially when it comes to the internet, you can’t always believe what you read. Editors who cover celebrity deaths say they’re more skeptical of online reports than ever before. posted on

When news of Nora Ephron’s death ricocheted around Twitter Tuesday afternoon, it was hard to tell whether the filmmaker and author had indeed died or whether the news was just another celebrity death hoax. As it turned out, it was neither: the tweets were based on a prematurely released tribute (since removed) on Wowowow.com written by Ephron’s friend, the gossip writer Liz Smith (who later said she regretted prematurely reporting the news, and didn’t try to confirm it with Ephron’s family because she didn’t want to bother them). When Ephron did pass away later that evening, the news was reported — accurately — by the Washington Post.

Early reports of Ephron’s death, like Smith’s, were greeted with skepticism because few outside of her close circle of friends and family even knew she was ill. But we live in a world where every news-related tweet, no matter how seemingly far-fetched, needs to be taken seriously — even though inaccurate reports of celebrity deaths surface on Twitter all the time, often as pranks.

With all the fake death reports on the Internet, “you just become instantly more skeptical,” says Us Weekly senior online editor Justin Ravitz. “I was on call when Whitney Houston died and when someone with the inside scoop said, ‘I’m hearing a rumor that Whitney Houston died,’ I’m like, that’s ridiculous — that sounds like a Twitter hoax. It seemed like a classic fake story.”

Long gone are the days when the New York Times was the only reliable source for a celebrity death. The problem now is that sometimes Twitter is actually right. So now, when a famous person dies, reporters — and everyone else — must sift through often-conflicting layers of news from all corners of the internet. Over the past few years, the climate has grown even faster and competitive. (Just think what hearing about Kurt Cobain’s suicide on Twitter would have been like.)

Bill McDonald, the obituaries editor for the New York Times, has been in his current position at the paper for six years, and says that even when he started there was a lot less noise on the Internet to sift through. “We would look at what the L.A. Times or Washington Post did, but there weren’t as many blogs or news sites,” he says. “Now obviously there’s a much more diverse news in the sense of [the number of] outlets. In some ways that’s useful because you do often hear of things now that we might not have before.”

But sometimes outlets report different things, making the job much more difficult. McDonald has seen a number of celebrity death hoaxes over the past six years, including rumors that Jeff Goldblum had fallen off a cliff while filming a movie around the time of Michael Jackson’s death. He says his team doesn’t follow Twitter that closely, and confirms deaths with celebrities’ reps before hastily running with sketchy reports. “We have to be vigilant and not do anything impulsively,” he says.

In the case of Ephron, her son Jacob Bernstein, a contributor to the paper, “was in touch with the writer of our obituary, so we were not going to do anything until we heard from him,” McDonald says. Once they noticed the Smith post, they started making calls to find out if it was true, but the Times isn’t always necessarily concerned with getting the news of a celebrity death up first. “We also like to be prepared and have an obituary ready, so we may not be as eager to tell the world right away, particularly if none of the world is aware of it,” he says. (The Times prepares obituaries for older celebrities, but when someone younger like Adam Yauch dies, they often don’t have anything on file.)

It’s also easier to confirm news about celebrities who are in the news more often, as Us editor Ravitz explains: “With [a celebrity like] Lindsay Lohan, we have a lot of sources. Someone like Nora Ephron doesn’t have tons of reps and sources we would deal with on a daily basis.” He says they also took note of Smith’s post, but found out from Ephron’s publisher that she was still alive and prepped their post to publish only when they got confirmation of Ephron’s passing. In this instance, they weren’t worried about being first with the news — though sometimes the site does post death reports before receiving confirmation, as in the case of a celebrity of intense interest to the Us Weekly audience, like Whitney Houston. “You wait and sort of say, well, okay, TMZ is saying that Whitney Houston died, and if we’re still waiting for confirmation, you can kind of go up with the headline and post it as a report and say reps cannot be reached,” Ravitz says. “If people don’t come out of the woodwork and say she’s alive and well, you put it up because you know people are going to start talking about it and searching for it.”

Though Washington Post media writer Paul Farhi notes that TMZ doesn’t have a perfect track record, they have accurately reported major stories like Michael Jackson’s death and Mel Gibson’s meltdown before other sources. “But I would not go with TMZ reporting without independently verifying,” he says. “I think it’s generally accurate but not always. Do I trust the Washington Post or the New York Times or other sources more? Yeah, I do I trust them more.”

Farhi sees another value in TMZ: they are not beholden to publicists or reps who negotiate stories about their celebrity clients with many mainstream publications. “I like the fact that there is now a completely oppositional, anti-celeb medium like TMZ because these things have punched through the tremendous management of information that surrounded celebs for so long,” he says. “The instinct to report the truth about celebs is a very good one because there’s so much untruth about them.” TMZ may be able to get their news out more quickly because they “don’t care about getting exclusive wedding photos,” Farhi adds. “The parking lot attendant, the paramedic, and the cops tend to be TMZ sources.”

Everyone seems to agree, Twitter is not to be trusted. After all, I typed “Lindsay Lohan dead” into the site’s search box just before publishing this story, and this is what I saw:

“Twitter is essentially people shouting on the corner,” Farhi says. “You wouldn’t give people shouting on the corner any real credibility. They may turn out to be right but there’s a fairly low prospect that’s going to happen.”

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