When Tom Petty Wasn't Dead

October 2nd, 2017: Tom Petty is the top trend on Twitter, beating the Las Vegas shooting by a landslide. Tweets giving premature and incorrect reports of the rock star’s death are shared 642,033 times while he is still fighting to survive.  

Petty suffered from cardiac arrest that put him on life support at the hospital which was first reported by TMZ. CBS News (@cbsnews) tweeted an hour later that he had been taken off life support and a source from the LAPD had confirmed his death, “Tom Petty, legendary rocker, is dead at 66. The musician reportedly suffered cardiac arrest." That was not the case, however. Petty was still alive and his body was fighting to survive.

Journalism is at an odd place in its history. Ever since Watergate the US has experienced a golden age of journalism, where news is seen as important and containing political value. Readership is expansive as content is more accessible than ever before. In fact, it can be found in most people’s pockets or at their fingertips. The downside to this accessibility, is that readers expect free content and they want it fast - in real time when possible.  

In some cases, real time reporting can be helpful and can even save lives. Natural disasters and mass shootings are examples of these types of events. Something as simple as a tweet can prevent another individual from walking into an unsafe situation.

On the other hand, verification is at the core of good journalism. Since the goal is to share the truth, the truth should be fact-checked and then fact-checked again. In the case of misreporting Petty’s death, journalists for big companies like Rolling Stone jumped the gun and traded being correct for being fast. Reporting Petty's passing in nearly real time did not provide any benefits to the readers. Social media, platforms in which many readers are drawn to the articles, moves very quickly and it is seductive to be the first to share something, like the death of a rock star. But is it worth sacrificing quality to be speedy? What are the repercussions of this loosely checked process of modern journalism?

What's the problem?

One problem with improperly verifying sources, is that the news shared can be hurtful. After the premature news of Petty’s alleged death was released, it spread like wildfire. His daughter, AnnaKim Violette shared her feelings about the poor unverified journalism via the platform Instagram. Her words can speak for themselves.

The other issue is that, once upon a time, a local newspaper would get a fact wrong. That misinformation would spread as far as the town’s population. Now, news does not only spread fast, but it spreads far. When it comes to the internet, the world is your oyster. Misinformation is extremely dangerous because of the direct and indirect ways in which it is passed along. Misinformation given by large voices (such as news stations, magazines, and public figures) reminds me of the domino effect. When an individual reads an article, they can share the content, or their response to the content, with others - the inception of a chain reaction. The original 236 posts informing Twitter users of Petty’s death were retweeted and liked 642,033 times. The average active Twitter user has followers. Those followers could be as few as 1, but they could also grow to be 1.2 million followers as is the case with musician John Mayer who shared both initial and corrected news about Petty’s passing. However, followers are not everything if a post catches on. One account, (@the_wrath_of) received 109,853 likes and 30,584 retweets on their corrected information post despite having only 598 followers. The point to the likes and retweets is that they exponentially increase views of original content. In the case of @the_wrath_of, should his followers have an average following of approximately 10 followers each (just an example - not the true average), that leads to his original tweet “Tom Petty was reported dead then not dead. Which makes sense because you can stand him up at the gates of hell but he won’t back down,” (5:09pm 02 October) showing up on over 1.5 million timelines.

Give me the numbers!

In the figure below, the data used for Initial News begins with the first tweet of Petty’s supposed death sent by TMZ at 12:00pm on Oct. 2nd, and ends with the last tweet available before the Los Angeles Police Department (@LAPDHQ) retracts confirmation his death.

The Corrected News column includes tweets informing of the retraction of statements claiming Petty’s death, criticism of poor fact-checking in journalism, and wishes for Petty to pull through.

Incorrect News is made up of tweets released after the retraction of Petty’s death but who still post Petty memories without context, include the phrase “rest in peace,” or are sharing the premature news of his death. Both the Corrected and Incorrect News columns follow all tweets when searching "Tom Petty” on Twitter until his true death was confirmed by his manager via a Rolling Stones tweet at 9:14pm.

It is unfortunate that 63.26% of the shares proceeding Petty’s true death were misinformed and premature. When over half of the understanding about an event is wrong, that says something about the journalism process in use. But there is another story to these results as well. Once the misinformation was retracted, 76.27% of shares, nearly 455,000, were dedicated to changing the story to reflect the truth. Users did not ignore the shift in the reporting, but questioned how it got something as concrete as death wrong in the first place. Richard R. (@Richman_89) tweeted, “I’m not sure if Tom Petty is dead, but I’m absolutely sure journalism is” (6:11pm, 02 October). A bold statement but appreciated by the 17,000+ sharers with similar opinions about the coverage.

So how do we know what to trust - and can we help?

The short answer is - we don’t know what to trust, but we can help.

Checking multiple reports, looking for time stamps indicating relevancy, and viewing the credentials of the sources for the reports is a start. This may seem time consuming, but just scan it over. Use your gut. If the facts in an article are well supported it should show.

Journalists are people too. Though it can only be of benefit to the American public to demand more credibility and trustworthiness, mistakes and biases will always be a part of the journalism process.

It is up to us as readers to improve our media literacy and do our own investigations before thoughtlessly hitting ‘retweet’. 


*Throughout the article, retweets and likes are both referred to as shares because on Twitter if a user like or retweets a post, it will show up on the timelines of their followers.

Cover photo courtesy of Photo Pin