The Awkward Reporting of Tom Petty's Death

[Photo Credit: Richard E. Aarons/Redfern]

Tom Petty died Monday, another sad moment in what was already a very sad day. The legendary rocker was just 66 years old and was still going strong when he suffered a massive heart attack. He'd just finished up a big tour -- and while saying he'd continue doing shows here and there, he told Rolling Stone that there likely wouldn't be any more big tours. 

So this was it; he was in semi-retirement. He had grandchildren to spend time with. 

And then he didn't.

The announcement of Tom Petty's death was met with a huge outpouring of tributes and sorrow, followed by confusion. What do mean he's not dead?

CBS News had broken the news with this tweet, and the story it linked to cited the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as their source:


But a while later, the LAPD released this statement via Twitter: "The LAPD has no information about the passing of singer Tom Petty. Initial information was inadvertantly provided to some media sources. However, the LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting."


So what happened?

The Los Angeles Police Department appears to have told the media that the singer had died. As a government agency, the LAPD is an official source and would normally be trusted to provide reliable info. So CBS News then relayed that official info and (wisely) cited their source as the LAPD. We, in turn, reported Tom Petty's passing to our audience, citing both CBS News and the police. 

Frankly, there's a reason why you should cite sources when you're reporting news second hand. That's because if the news turns out to be wrong, you have a bit less egg on your face. CBS did that, but still took a lot of heat:


CBS News later revised its story: "The LAPD says it cannot confirm earlier reports of singer Tom Petty’s death. TMZ reports that the singer is still clinging to life."


Let's call it an embarrassing moment in journalism, but at least there's a lesson in it. For journalists, the lesson is to cite your sources and do your best to be sure of them. And while the LAPD would be an "official source," it's a fair follow-up question to ask why they'd know anything at all. After all, this was a medical emergency -- not a police matter.

For the public, and for those of us who share information, the lesson is to pay attention to exactly what's being said. You may think it's parsing words, but it's those words that matter. The CBS News story said that Tom Petty had died, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. They factually reported what they were told, and by whom. We, like they, chose to believe what the police told us.

I'm sure CBS News regrets relying on bad information, and we certainly regret sharing their report. Once again, TMZ turned out to be the best source. TMZ never said Tom Petty had died, until it actually happened. (When they said Michael Jackson had died in 2009, I was sure it was true -- they're just that good on these matters). 

The actual passing of Tom Petty was reported hours later by his management, and then with this social media post. 


In the end, Tom Petty is gone... and gone far too young. 

Rest in Peace.

=> Tom Petty in PHOTOS.


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