When word of breaking news begins appearing, you have to go past the old saying, ‘Consider the source.’
On Thursday, we learned actor and comedian Garry Shandling died at age 66. It was reported Shandling died suddenly, likely of a heart attack.
Shandling was known for his Garry Shandling Show in the 1980s and The Larry Sanders Show, in the early 1990s. The New York Times reports the latter program, which gave a satirical look at the “dark side” of hosting a late-night talk show, “paved the way” for programs like 30 Rock. He’s also credited for being a mentor to many of today’s comedians and late night hosts.
But let’s back up a bit.
Let’s go back to Thursday afternoon when the first rumblings of Shandling’s death came to light.
The first source many of us saw to report the story was TMZ, a source that has grown a reputation for being first to report celebrity deaths in particular.
The organization, which mostly focuses on celebrity gossip, sealed its reputation as a serious contender on celebrity news in 2009 when it scooped everyone on the death of superstar Michael Jackson. The Guardian reported TMZ was first to alert the world of Jackson’s suspected heart attack at approximately 1:30pm on June 29, 2009; then when Jackson died at 2:26pm, TMZ was first to report it just 18 minutes later.
As it happened, more traditional media sources were slower to report it because they were prudently trying to independently confirm the information.
While independent confirmation is still a critical part of the news process in traditional media, it seems some sites are quick to grab reports from TMZ and run with them. Yes, they credit TMZ, but there’s a potential problem. Consider this line from a lesser-known website that ran Thursday afternoon:
Celebrity websites, including Variety, TMZ and the Hollywood Reporter, are reporting that longtime comedian and actor Garry Shandling has died. He was 66.
There’s just one thing: at the time that story was published, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter weren’t reporting Shandling had died: they were reporting that TMZ was reporting Shandling had died.
Yes, they were lending their name and reputation to the report, thereby giving TMZ’s report more credibility, but from what I could tell, at that point, those other sources had not yet independently confirmed his death on their own.
So it wasn’t a case of multiple sources reporting the death: at that point, it was one source reporting it and multiple sources reporting on that report.
It’s something of a gamble: if TMZ turns out to be correct, those other sources that quickly published stories about TMZ’s report typically suffer no damage. They don’t necessarily get much (if any) credit for being “among the first” to report it, since they weren’t the first.
However, if TMZ’s report had turned out to be inaccurate, there’s a much bigger chance those other sources would have been found “guilty by association” from the skeptical news audience who will complain that everyone — not just TMZ — should have “checked their sources” before trying to be so quick to report it.
This is to say, there’s little to be gained and more to be lost if you quote a source that turns out to be wrong.
I can tell you firsthand from the perspective of working in a newsroom that it’s frustrating to see others reporting something you’re still trying to confirm. But it’s the same scenario for anyone who isn’t first to report something in those initial moments.
TMZ, of course, gets the credit for being first to report this, which unquestionably boosts their reputation.
But even a blogger who’s trying to write about a story should know that if you’re going to quote “sources”  and everyone’s simply reporting what one single source is reporting, then you really have only one single source to work with.