I heard the rumour about Gordon Lightfoot having died about 1 pm, Thursday February 18, by email.
I didn’t panic, although Gordon Lightfoot’s a hero of mine.
I did what any self-respecting new media person would do: I checked Twitter.
There were three tweets (one a retweet of the first, questioning the info) suggesting Lightfoot had died. None were from name-brand news organs and none cited a source.
I then did what any self-respecting journalist would do: I phoned someone to verify whether it was true.
In this case, the “someone” was Early Morning Productions, Mr. Lightfoot’s publishers, with whom he is in regular contact.
They assured me they’d just spoken with Mr. Lightfoot half an hour or so before, and that he was just fine.
I replied to the three tweeters to tell them the rumour was not true, and hoped it would die there.
It didn’t. Twenty minutes later the Twitter buzz was a dull roar, a couple of our competitors had put up stories on their homepages, and numerous friends had put up Facebook status updates expressing grief over the loss of Canada’ greatest songwriter.
Once again, I phoned EMP, this time to warn them of the furor. They were confused by all the hype, but I was again assured Mr. Lightfoot was alive and well.
Following that call I sent a general tweet from @canoedossier, and started responding to my friends’ Facebook updates, as well as an online newsgroup for folk musicians, with the facts.
Shortly thereafter I started seeing the @canoedossier posts retweeted, (and in many cases, paraphrased without attribution). It seemed as if many of those -including some bona fide journalists – who had been happily retweeting the news of Lightfoot’s death without verifying were a little slower to retweet the truth. Funny about that.
Gradually, the facts started to overwhelm the repeated rumours, and those who’d gleefully jumped on the story first were now retracting it. God knows who would perpetrate such a hoax, but that’s what it was.
About an hour and a half after it had started, the latest celebrity death rumour had been stomped out.
Of course, the story about the hoax continued going mad on Twitter. And all of Canada was celebrating, apparently, that Gordon Lightfoot – as one of our editors put it – is “among 6 billion people on Earth who are not dead.”
What did we learn from this? That new media thrives on rumours, or that new media is able to rapidly correct rumours? That some in the old media can be so terrified of missing a scoop that they jump too soon, or that others in the old media are smart enough to wait and find out if big news is really factual?
Or did we learn that when the audience becomes the reporter and publisher, the news just travels a hell of a lot farther and faster?
I know what I learned. We’re all journalists now. And since we’re all journalists, we all have to think like journalists, whether we’re creating, consuming or repeating the news.
Common sense and a clear head will save you a hell of a lot of embarrassment.
We knew that already, actually. But it never hurts to be reminded.
I hope this has reminded us all, old media, new media, and audiences alike.