On June 25, the world lost a tremendous talent when singer Michael Jackson passed away. Since then, we have had endless and countless reports on every aspect, real and imagined, regarding the life of Mr. Jackson and, of course, his death. It was journalism gone haywire that has found the airwaves, cable news services and Internet literally burning up.
On the day of his death, as can be expected, the flood of initial reports varied by the moment. No one knew what was going on but everyone wanted to report that. News outlets led one another, fed one another and raced against one another to be the one source of definitive information for the public. However, one, above all others, was the first to report to the world that Michael Jackson had died, and that report came from the superhighway of paparazzi news, TMZ. Of course, they had a slight advantage.
Michael Jackson was declared deceased by attending physicians on June 25 at 5:26pm East Coast Time (2:26pm Pacific Coast Time). TMZ posted news of Mr. Jackson’s death at 5:20pm East Coast Time. Yes, they were indeed the first to report on the death of Mr. Jackson… six minutes before he was declared dead.
That the 24 hour news cycle has led to filler journalism to keep the public’s interest is clear. With our permission, we have allowed filler to be news, and sloppy to become acceptable. However, the reporting on the death of Michael Jackson was a report on the death of journalistic integrity itself.
It was on an Internet news/ debate board that I first pointed out this six minute gap. The reply I received was variations of “They were right, what’s the problem?”
They were right, what’s the problem??? They print and publish a notice on the death of a celebrity before he actually is declared dead. THAT’S the problem.
There are lines that even those who lick the slime in defiance of journalistic integrity do not, and should not, cross. When these lines are crossed, it debases all journalism, and every journalist from reporters to gossip columnists as well as any publications that track these matters for a public eager to know.
Such a publication reported that a man died before the physicians that were working on him declared him dead. The ramifications of such a thing are stunning. It means that a source of news that knows a public is waiting is willing to place a sensationalistic headline of a speculative nature in the public’s grasp in order to boast to the world that they got there first. This makes journalism not an event driven medium but one that chooses instead to drive the event.
Such sloppy reporting for the goal of being the first to stun the planet can also create great and unneeded anguish for loved ones, and, even in certain rare cases, manipulate people and even markets dealing in businesses for which the reported individual may be involved in.
This indecency to both subject and its intended audience was not misinformation, an accident or a report that found prejudicial information to back a theory; this was the act of purposely being a breaking party of sensationalism over journalism.
It is a toss-up, however, as to who is the party more involved in this death of journalism. That the purveyors of such speculative reporting are a named party is a given. However, like a tango, it takes two, and that the public is willing to accept this and dismiss this because “eventually it turned out that they got it right this time” is perhaps a greater perversion to how willing we are to allow journalists to be authors of the news instead of reporters of it.
News organizations, even those that teeter on sacrificed integrity and compromised dignity, thrive as the recipients and guardians of free speech— which means they, above all, must adhere to the responsibilities inherent in free speech.
THAT is why it matters, and shame on all of us who read the news if we are willing to accept fiction as news on the premise that if they get it right, then accuracy at any given moment is secondary to the story itself.
Lloyd E. Flyer is a freelance writer, and may be contacted through the “Tolucan Times” or at Alternateangle@pacbell.net.