Erroneous reports of death of Pat Burns another cautionary tale for media

TORONTO – Newsrooms across Canada got another red-faced lesson in the perils of the Internet on Friday when they latched on to an erroneous flurry of Twitter reports proclaiming the death of celebrated former National Hockey League coach Pat Burns.

Upon seeing the reports, which raced like wildfire across the popular microblogging service and other social networking sites like Facebook, media outlets across the country began dusting off their obit files on Burns, who has been battling cancer for months.

Several—CTV, Montreal radio station News 1130, the Montreal Gazette and the Calgary Herald, to name a few—jumped the gun, posting the news and fanning the flames until Burns himself denied the erroneous reports to TSN hockey analyst Bob McKenzie.

McKenzie quashed it the same way it had spread—with Twitter.

“I come to Quebec to spend some time with my family and they say I’m dead,” McKenzie quoted Burns as saying. “I’m not dead, far f—– from it. They’ve had me dead since June. Tell (them) I’m alive. Set them straight.”

Burns, 58, coached the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. He won his only Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003. The rumours of his death seemed to originate with reports that he was in Quebec because his health had taken a turn for the worse.

Several Canadian media outlets did not report that Burns had died, including the Globe and Mail, the CBC and The Canadian Press.

The mistake recalled a similar gaffe earlier this year when various Canwest newspapers, including the National Post and the Vancouver Sun, prematurely confirmed the death of Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. That erroneous story apparently originated as a Twitter prank.

The Lightfoot fiasco was a lesson in Journalism 101 that it appears many Canadian newsrooms have failed to heed, said Chris Waddell, director of the school of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.

“Everyone seems to suddenly in journalism have determined the schoolyard rule—that if someone else did it, it’s OK for me to do it—seems to apply,” Waddell said.

“Everyone seems to have forgotten that every news organization should have responsibility on its own to ensure that what it’s reporting is correct.”

Complicating matters on Friday, however, was the fact that credible sources of information were themselves misled by the rumours.

Former Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher appeared to confirm the reports when he spoke to the Toronto Star, which cited the noted hockey insider as its principal source in its own online report. Fletcher later apologized for the confusion.

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“I extend my deepest apologies to Pat Burns and his family,” Fletcher said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, I was misinformed by a friend earlier… and my public comments were completely inaccurate. Myself, and the entire hockey community I’m sure, will continue to wish all the best for Pat and we will keep him in our thoughts.”

The Star’s public editor was unavailable for comment Friday.

Phyllise Gelfand, director of communications at Postmedia Network (formerly Canwest News Service), which originated the report on the Herald and Gazette sites, said the world of breaking news is more competitive than ever, which ratchets up the pressure to be first with major developments.

Gelfand said Postmedia’s initial news alert was based not on independent confirmation, but on the fact other media outlets were already reporting the news—a common practice in the industry when independent verification isn’t immediately possible. The Postmedia report attributed the information to the Toronto Star.

“We followed the lead,” Gelfand said.

That, said Waddell, is the wrong approach. “There are very few people whose death is so important that it isn’t worth taking a few minutes to find out whether in fact they’re dead.”

Twitter, meanwhile, was teeming Friday afternoon with regrets and mea culpas from people who had enthusiastically re-tweeted news they thought had been confirmed. Others aimed their vitriol directly at the media.

“So retired NHL coach Pat Burns is still alive?” mused one tweeter. “What else does the mainstream news media get wrong?”

Quipped another: “I only wish Gordon Lightfoot was still alive to see all this.”

Still, notwithstanding the obvious pitfalls of the social media landscape, outlets like Twitter and Facebook often prove to be excellent sources of information that yield interesting and relevant stories, and as such have a role to play in the modern newsroom, Waddell said.

It’s up to the journalists to make sure it’s correct, he added.

“Social media is a faster way of sending around rumours and sending around information, but just because you can get it faster doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be checking it out to see if it’s true or not.”

Or, as Chris Boutet of the National Post put on his personal Twitter page: “Ultimately, speed won’t matter if you develop a reputation for getting it wrong.”