Steve McNair and the Failure of Breaking News Reporting

It’s a late Fourth of July afternoon here in Bethesda, Maryland and I am sitting here working on a chapter in the new book. Peacefully minding my own business while the steady stream of chips from Tweetdeck occurred, I did not realize what was happening.

Steve McNair died. Putting aside the tragedy (he was a former Raven, a hero among athletes and, by all acounts, men – NFL MVP, a warrior known to play through countless injuries, mature in his approach to life and the game), we witnessed a catastrophic failure of major media. Again.

I’m not one to crucify major media. Indeed, I may be one of the few in my industry to want to see the newspaper and other forms of traditional media succeed in a huge fashion. The problem is that, even in the days of blogs and Twitter, we still rely on major media to report the news. To do the journalism. To find the sources and produce the confirmation.

As much as we in new media claim to be journalists, major media still does the job better than most of us could hope too.

We rely on Twitter and sometimes we’re wrong. Take the example of the report that actor Jeff Goldblum had died. Highly inaccurate. Stephen Colbert even fucked around with us in new media claiming that if it happens on Twitter, it must be true.

This afternoon, Twitter was ablaze with reports that Nashville Police has found former Tennessee Titan and Baltimore Raven quarterback, Steve McNair, dead in an apparent murder suicide. WKRN, in Nashville, was the first with the news and it quickly disappeared off their page – a result of too much traffic or erroring on the side of caution, who is to really know.

NBC Affiliate WTVF, Channel 5, was the second to report it filling the gap where WKRN dropped off.

It was a long time (30 minutes or so) before national media picked it up. ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports by their own slogan, didn’t have it. No one did. We were left gasping for more. Is the rumor true? Can anyone confirm? Can police confirm?

Was any of us on Twitter making calls? Maybe. A few possibly. Not many.

Major media got a little jittery in the past. After 9/11. With other reports that turned into an overcompensation. Fact is, major media can safely report on a rumor as long as it is billed as such. No one has to say that this is confirmed. But people want to know. We get our news on the internet.

We find out about things happening in Iran via Twitter. We find out about Michael Jackson dying… on Twitter. We read blogs that deal with Sarah Palin’s awkwardly bizarre resignation at Alaska governor. We’re not watchoing your TV stations. We’re not in Nashville. Welcome to the global economy.

Report the damn news and report it as a rumor to hedge your bets. But report the news.

Photo Credit: mdu2boy

Update: Most media organizations are reporting a double homicide now, not a murder sucide. WKRV, who was first with the story, had reported a possible murder-suicide.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

45 thoughts on “Steve McNair and the Failure of Breaking News Reporting

  1. The reason it takes the media a bit longer to go with a story like this is because they have something that bloggers and Twitter’s will never have – credibility. You can’t just break into regular programming with any and every rumor reported on Twitter. Anyone who has taken fifteen minutes of any journalism class knows this.

    1. Right. Initial reports in this case had Mcnair and a woman found get outside, behind a building downtown. Now they’re saying it was inside a residence.

      Facts are facts. You either get them right or wrong, and anyone at the scene (reporter or not) can handle the facts.

  2. But why do we need to know in that 30 minute time span? What’s the rush? We didn’t know him personally.

    Just a weird post if you ask me.

    Media is going to fail at reporting something like this for thirty minutes b/c it takes time to get the facts and not report something not true.

    I’d rather them get it right than rely on something like TWITTER to tell me the news.

    Geeze!

    1. If it doesn’t apply to you, then don’t worry. Clearly I’m not talking about the specific incident of the news but the speed at which news breaks. And that is the golden child in journalism. Be first and be right. I think you can be first and be right that the reports are happening and confirm later. On Twitter, we wanted answers and no one could give any,

  3. Please link this to the site where it says MURDER-SUICIDE. It is listed as a DOUBLE HOMOCIDE in all other places except this site.

  4. I’m sorry to hear Steve Mcnair died, but outside of sports news I don’t see a reason why national news should report this at all.

    1. Not a “multi year MVP”. He was co-MVP for one year, in 2003. He was also a 3-time Pro Bowler and played in the Super Bowl.

      Just wanted to set the record straight.

      1. How does taking a few minutes to confirm the sources of a high-profile death amount to irrelevance? Reporting rumors without confirming facts makes an organization no more credible than Perez Hilton.

        Aaron, I do think you’re spoiled at how fast news really does break these days. Even though “old” media, it generally breaks much faster now than it ever did in the past.

        1. IMO, blogs will only complement rather than replace traditional media. They are not better than the mainstream media, but they are different. And if that extracts additional value from the “old” media or keeps them honest, then more power to the blogs

  5. I saw this on Twitter via you and others spreading the news, but I also approached it with a grain of salt. I think the other reason for the “slow uptake,” as it were may have something to do with the broken link to WKRN one of your first tweets contained.

    Admittedly, after the recent rash of famous (and infamous) deaths, I think that a “grain of salt” approach where traditional media outlets confirm the event is highly valued. Add to this that most folks are enjoying a holiday on this Saturday, and the speed slows a bit.

    To me, Twitter will never be a source of news. The concept of re-tweets has made its position as a source even more precarious (let alone my general detest for the concept of re-tweets). To me, it will always point to other sources of news–be it ESPN, CNN, and others. This post–while certainly starting an interesting debate–kind of reinforces my problem with the Iran election coverage and Scoble calling it “CNN fail.” Being first is important in the current news cycle, but I think it is more important to be right.

    Unrelated, though, I am saddened by his passing in such a manner.

    1. As a follow-up, I also think that intelligent consumers of news will go elsewhere to verify a report. It’s sort of like taking the notion of Reagan’s “trust but verify” statement and applying it to information. While you reported the link, I looked at other places, started Googling, and was looking at Google News as well.

      1. Me too. I was hitting all the local news first and digging up what I could. I don’t have the resources to confirm myself, but I was cautioning on Twitter that there were only so many “confirmed reports”. I waited for three separate sources before writing this article.

  6. Breaking News! Something is happening somewhere. It may be newsworthy. Will follow up with more details, as they become available.

    (There. Does that cut it?)

  7. Aaron, as a member of old AND new media, I must respectfully correct you on “be first and be right”. It’s “be first BUT be right”.

    The reason why ESPN was not the first to break the story is because they have a responsibility to have confirmation that everything they report is true and factual. As you saw in your own citizen reporting (“murder-suicide”), first reports are often wrong reports to some extent or another. (I don’t recall seeing you jump all over old media for taking even longer to confirm that Michael Jackson had been hospitalized, and then again when he had passed away.)

    You yourself admitted that the first two sources of the story were “old media” outlets in Nashville, and if local “old media” outlets. Furthermore, ESPN was able to report it before 90% of the country had heard anything about it. (Remember that we–the people who hang on our Twitter timelines every moment of the day, even on a family holiday–are very much the minority.)

    Your point is not at all without merit, but I think you’re jumping all over old media–in this case, more appropriately labeled “professional media”–for ensuring that they’re doing their job well.

    1. I thi nk I left out the most important sentence I meant to include in my first paragraph: Although it is true that you want to “be first”, it is MUCH more important to “be right”.

  8. Jesus it’s 4th of July don’t you people have freinds and family. Not to sound like I am a hypocrite, we were youtubing music and came across this shit. If Americans’ took as much pride in their celebrity deaths as they did in upholding this nations intergrity we wouldn’t be such a disgrace as a global leader. My f’in god we just had to sit through a week of Michael Jackson a f’in pedofile, no who cares about North Korea, the economy, and Iran. Let’s martyr a dude who can dance and molests children at the same time, wow he is the BEST, will miss him. It shame’s me to think what the rest of the world preceives as America’s top stories as MJ, OJ, Peterson, Haley, Holloway, a bunch of negative garbage THAT DOESN’T MATTER. Great now we have another week of Mcnair (good roll model, good player, RIP, dude people are gonna milk your death, if they can make a penny off your death they are gonna try and make a dollar) Who cares you don’t know him. You never will be anything like him. Join me get off your fat ass and go do something with your life go play with your kids, see your family freinds do something good in your community. Or continue to live your live vicarously through celebrities and losers like this who garner attention through celebrities lifes. America there is a real world out there Hollywood isn’t America it’s the 4th of July!!!

    1. Ryan, why are you taking precious time away from your family, kids and paying tribute to America to curse and sound like you are having a cheeseburger heart attack? Hypocrite.

  9. The fact of the matter is, when I left traditional media it was already fast food journalism. News headlines fast and dirty. It’s gotten 40 times lazier since then, and I honestly think stories like MJ and today’s McNair news is simply LAZY media outlets.

    It’s a holiday. That means there are fewer people in the newsroom and probably no news director or station manager. That means Sally intern at the desk saw the news breaking but wasn’t sure what to do with it. Is he a football player? Should we break in? Is this confirmed? She asks the anchor or reporter and they shrug and say ‘call the news director’. News director tells them to confirm it and they call the Nashville cops. Nashville cops are swamped.

    Then it stops there. Why? “Well I called and I got a no comment” or “I called the PIO and left a voicemail” …this passes on a holiday. OR “we can’t get confirmation so we’ll wait and see” or a million other reasons.

    IN THIS particular scenario I would have been comfortable having the sports guy air the news and attribute it to the local news sources. Two stations in Nashville aren’t TMZ and if you can’t trust your local affiliate…who the hell can you trust?

    This is turning into a blog post. I’ll shut up now. Either way, it took them too long. period. Because it’s a holiday and they are lazy.

  10. “It was a long time (30 minutes or so) before national media picked it up. ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports by their own slogan, didn’t have it. No one did. We were left gasping for more. Is the rumor true? Can anyone confirm? Can police confirm?”

    Maybe I am an optimist, but I think most major news media knows about Twitter, and is checking it regularly. My guess is that ESPN knew about this and didn’t report anything because they were verifying information that they got from Twitter, and other sources.

    “Report the damn news and report it as a rumor to hedge your bets. But report the news.”

    IOW, report rumors as being possible news? Now THAT is how mass media becomes instantly irrelevant. Just look at how many different versions of this story appeared on Twitter. What if ESPN had ‘reported’ each rumor? They’d be updating the story every 5 mins with a new version, and look like idiots in the process.

    Sorry but this is the 4th of July. I can’t fault ESPN or another else in MSM for taking 30 minutes to verify rumors before they reported the facts.

  11. I don’t quite understand all this current need to bash the news media for being slow.

    While I’m sure Steve McNair was a nice guy (and he was certainly a good player in his time) it matters not one bit to me if I hear of his death in real-time, 30 minutes, tomorrow, next week or indeed, if I hear at all. I’m not a friend or family member of McNair or a Ravens or Titans fan and I don’t need this information to make any important decisions.

    Same with Jacko – what difference does it make how quickly the news of his demise gets to me? Not one bit to be honest.

    Hey nearly time for fireworks – outta here!!

  12. Regardless if the news is about a celebrity, a political figure, or the pope, just because the item is trending on Twitter, real media, whatever that is, should make a few calls to confirm it before blabbing it all over the place. It IS lazy then the media do not vet the information the are receiving from sources. It IS irresponsible journalism. When the professional press do not double check with a reliable source, not matter what the nature of the news, they are doing a disservice to what readers they do have. If we simple rely on social media as our source of news (rather than one of many sources of news tips) we might as well be a just an angry mob of torch wielding villages. If the ‘real media’ take a little while to perform their due diligence to check the information, then so be it.

  13. I’m not part of the new media. Or the old media. I love the internet but don’t use Twitter. And I don’t mind if news reports of fairly famous retired athletes take 30 minutes to break. I mean, it’s only 30 minutes. How ridiculously fast paced does everything have to be when we are complaining about stories not getting picked up for a half hour?

  14. If this is about speed vs. credibility, new media will usually win speed and mainstream media will usually win in credibility. But more importantly, if mainstream media sacrifices their credibility, they have nothing left

  15. Interesting string of comments! Personally, when I hear of someone’s passing, I would prefer to wait a short while and hear the true facts around it rather than a quick and dirty “stay tuned for the truth later.” Unless, of course it is a family or friend and I’m needed to go immediately someplace to do something important for someone as a result of the passing.

  16. Aaron’s hit on some important points here. It is certainly important to be right, moreso than being first. But when Yahoo News and multiple other reputable online sources have something and I tune into CNN and see nothing but the same rehashed Michael Jackson story…

    “Old media” is fighting for its survival. If people begin to view Twitter and TMZ as the places for the most up-to-date news (and after the past two weeks there is no reason not to) where does that leave print media or CNN? Dangerously far from relevancy.

    I had to find out about the weekend’s other biggest news story, the Palin resignation, from Yahoo as well. I’m a former newspaper reporter now in the blogosphere because well, that’s where news and innovation are happening now. I too want to see newspapers survive and learn to thrive. But I’m growing increasingly uncertain that’s ever going to happen.

  17. I live in Nashville and some of what Aaron says in his post in incorrect. The Channel 2 news crew was the first to pick up the story. Then Channel 5, the local CBS affiliate got there. Shortly after, all the local news media was on the scene and breaking into regular programming throughout the day and night with updates, competing for air time with the tornadoes and severe weather alerts in the area and the rescheduled fireworks display. Most of what was read or heard outside of Nashville about McNair’s death was the result of our two excellent local AP sports reporters, who got byline credit on most sites.

    Interestingly, when the police spokesman faced the press, he knew very little and admitted less. The local reporters knew 10 times more than the police. So kudos to them for digging quickly and getting the info out to the public as quickly as they could confirm it.

    It considered a double homocide only because technically in police jargon when someone is found dead it is classified a homocide until proven otherwise. However, it is an apparent homocide/suicide and the police are not looking for any other suspects. The police believe she shot him 4 times (including twice in the head) and then shot herself once in the head, falling dead on top of the gun that she used.

    The very sad thing is that he was cheating on his beautiful wife of 12 years with this bimbo in a secret love shack downtown. His family home was just 10 minutes away from the condo where he was killed. There are several high profile people that knew about this affair and helped him with the deception over several months. I’m sure there are many more dirty secrets about to be uncovered during the investigation.

    He was a sport hero but also a cheating, lying jerk who got his just rewards. I think that 30 minutes for the mainstream media to sort it all out was plenty of time. I am embarrassed that the world has to read and hear about this man’s dirty laundry and relate it to Nashville. I am frankly tired of the Titans continually bringing more shame and scandal to soil the image of our city.

    I want to know about it quickly because I am curious and, to be honest, if it had been a murder by a white man, there could have easily been riots in the street and I would have changed my plans to take the family downtown to watch the fireworks.

    And one more consideration to your argument for quick reporting, I do want the facts to be checked and presented. However, in some cases, the delay is to allow for spin and cover up. That’s when the first reports can be most interesting as compared to the later homogenized versions and official statements.

  18. I found out about the McNair situation via Twitter as well while on vacation for the fourth. Even more bizarre are the reports of the dead girl’s ex boyfriend and his Twitter/Myspace updates. He left messages some weird messages demeaning McNair on these social networks, sparking many rumors about his involvement. Social media has changed the world, that’s for sure.

    http://twitter.com/Cyril_Paciullo

  19. Speaking of the bigger , more traditional news sources, only Fox News sent out a news alert about the discovery of Steve McNair’s death. Maybe an earlier comment is right about the significance of his death on a nation wide scale.

    source: http://www.breakingNewsOrNot.com

  20. I don’t know, 30 minutes to verify a rumor sounds good enough for me. Do I really want to turn on the evening news to get a digest of the latest rumors? Nah. I just want verified factual content.

    I agree though, I think major news media should certainly announce on “new media outlets” when they’ve picked up on a rumor and are in the process of verifying the lead.

    It would make me feel comfortable to know that someone at CNN is working on the story, I just don’t need to know that by the time the evening news comes on.

  21. To put simply the main criticism of this post: Not “Be first and be right” but “Be the first to be right”.

  22. I actually heard about McNair’s death as I was walking by a guy talking on his phone at a pool party in Nashville. I jumped on my iPhone and started searching for news and didn’t find anything. Nashville is incestuously small and word travels fast. Maybe I should have tweeted the rumor. The guy on the phone probably had a buddy who lived in the same building as McNair.

  23. Great points Aaron, I am astonished, McNair was one of my favorite football players of all times and I didn’t expect to hear much more about him since he retired…

  24. Update from this afternoon’s official press conference that just concluded a few minutes ago, the police are satisfied that it was a murder/suicide. Case closed.

    I wonder how quickly it will be on the “wires”?

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