Journalism

Actress’s Death Raises Question for Reporters

When a famous person dies, when is the right time to report it? How many sources need to confirm something before it’s considered “safe” to report?

Those questions came to mind today when the first reports that a legendary actress from the world of daytime television had passed away.

Frances Reid, who played matriarch Alice Horton on NBC’s Days of Our Lives, passed away Wednesday at age 95. Reid was an original cast member when the show premiered in 1965, and stayed with the show for more than 40 years. Though her last appearance was in December of 2007, as far as I know, her character was never officially “killed off.” Alice just went to that mysterious place soap characters go when the actors who play them become too frail for frequent appearances.

The earliest reports of her passing came from blogs that gave a decent amount of information on her past, but very few details of her passing, and almost none on the source of their information.

One of the first claimed that Reid’s family members confirmed her passing “on the blog,” but it didn’t identify the blog to which it referred. No hyperlinks, no names. Just their reporting of someone else confirming something elsewhere.

On Twitter, former co-star Deidre Hall posted a tweet acknowledging the loss:

[quotetweet tweetid=8624637821]

Another actor from the soap, Shawn Christian, tweeted this:

[quotetweet tweetid=8637488746]

But even with these “confirmations,” there is doubt, because neither of these Twitter accounts are actually listed as “verified accounts,” a service the site offers to guarantee that Twitter users claiming to be held by famous people actually are.

This isn’t the kind of reporting news consumers claim that they like — or even want — but in this Information Age where some people with blogs seem to think they’re just as good as the Associated Press, that’s what many news consumers are settling for. Even when they don’t know it.

About six hours after these initial, detail-limited postings began appearing, more well-known sources, like Entertainment Weekly and Soap Central began running with the story.

Those reporters who tweeted that Reid had passed away, rather than couching it with sources say he had passed away, turned out to be right. Although they still took gambles, since several celebrities certainly more of a “household name” than Reid have had their deaths reported incorrectly across social networking sites.

Reporters face increasing pressure (and criticism) from news consumers about reports that the consumers feel are biased or contain questionable facts. Yet news consumers began reacting to this “news” when there was no verifiable source to confirm anything.

So when will these consumers think it’s acceptable for a reporter to actually report information based on such sometimes-unreliable sources?

As for Reid herself, while I haven’t seen an episode of Days of Our Lives in its entirety for more than thirty years, my grandmother watched it when I was little, and I remember Reid’s Alice Horton character well. She was the strong, kind, motherly type that every soap had one of in the 1960s and 70s. Nowadays, soaps that have such a character usually keep them on the back burner when it comes to their storylines.

Reid’s death leaves Helen Wagner, of CBS’s As the World Turns, as the oldest and longest-running matriarch character. Wagner’s character of Nancy Hughes, spoke the first lines on that show back in 1956.

2 Comments

  1. I am reminded of an occurence a year or so ago. Writer John Scalzi reported the passing of another writer of his accquaintance. He updated that writer’s Wikipedia page, noting the death, and had his update removed because he did not quote a verifiable source. His source was the writer’s wife, of whom he was a personal friend, but that wasn’t good enough for Wikipedia. Until it had been reported by a recognised media outlet, as far as Wikipedia were concerned, it hadn’t happened.

    1. There is certain irony in that, but that is how the site is set up. Edits and additions require verifiable sources that are in print, either offline or online. Even if you saw the man die yourself, you can’t edit his bio on Wikipedia to reflect that, until it’s been printed by an outside source. That’s how it should be.

      Which is ironic in a way, since the site itself is far from being something I’d use as a source I would confidently refer to. Any idiot can edit it. Shortly after the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, I looked up Haiti on Wikipedia, and it mentioned that hundreds of thousands were feared dead, but that – verbatim – “they were ####### so no one cares”. Like I said, any idiot can edit.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.