Making Sense of the Media
12:28 pm
Wed October 30, 2013

Why Were There Premature Reports of Bill Young's Death?

The day before Tampa Bay-area Congressman C.W. Bill Young died, he was inaccurately reported dead in the news media.

Several news organizations prematurely reported the death of the longest-serving Republican member of the House of Representatives.

Among the first was St. Petersburg's Peter Schorsch, editor of "SaintPetersblog."

In an 11-minute stretch, Schorsch tweeted three times -- first that a relative had confirmed Young's death, then that the information was not confirmed by the hospital and, finally, that multiple sources were confirming the death.

Forty minutes later, Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times tweeted that Young had not died. Schorsch retweeted that and added, "Thank God".

But the damage was done. The story of Young's death had been picked up by several other news organizations... including Fox News and anchor Gretchen Carlson.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense-Making Project" said that the inaccurate reporting on Young's death is one in a long line of bad reports on deaths of prominent people.

"We saw this with Joe Paterno.  We saw this with Leroy Selmon. We saw it with Gabbie Giffords who in fact did not die when she was shot. So this happens quite often in today's media environment," explained McBride.

Of course, the question is why does this keep happening?

McBride said, "There is a lot of communication that goes out to family and friends and relatives that can easily be misinterpreted, especially the further away you get from somebody who is there in the hospital room. It's the people who are getting the information third or fourth or fifth hand who are calling reporters and saying. "hey I heard this". But then the reporters are doing something fairly irresponsible. They are not confirming the information with official sources."

McBride gave props to blogger Schorsch for writing a column explaining his mistake in reporting Young's death, but she said he could have gone further.

"He doesn't name his sources," McBride said. " I think we could be more transparent as journalists if we took Peter's lead but then went even further and really explained how we got information that turned out to be wrong."

And reporters should check their motivation for trying to be first to report a prominent death.

"This is really about journalists and bloggers trying to impress each other," McBride explained. "There is absolutely no need, when you think about Congressman Young's death, there's no need for us to get that information within an hour of when it happens."