On John Wooden's Health, Rumors Move Faster Than Facts on Internet
It is also the ultimate rumor mill -- and a dangerously effective tool to spread misinformation. And in the never-ending race to attract online eyeballs, it seems like no one, even mainstream, respectable media outlets, can avoid making mistakes that would have been unthinkable in an earlier, less-instantaneous era.
The latest example came Thursday night, when several media sources, including The Washington Post, went live with online stories that legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden had died. Within minutes, the news of Wooden's apparent death went viral, with links to the Post's story showing up as the first items on Google searches. It caught fire on Twitter, became an immediate talking point on sports radio, and sent editors into a frenzy. At Staples Center in Los Angeles, just minutes before the Lakers and Celtics tipped off for Game 1 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Wooden's "death" was a frequent subject of conversation.
The only problem: Wooden isn't dead yet.
No one related to the 99-year-old coach, who has battled various health problems in recent years and had recently reported to be in very poor condition, has confirmed the Post's story. UCLA told FanHouse Thursday evening that "reports of his death are erroneous" and that the school would not make any further comments out of respect for Wooden's family.
The Post has since taken down the link to its earlier story, replacing it with a short, unbylined report that says Wooden, who won 10 NCAA basketball championships at UCLA, has been hospitalized and is in "grave" condition, citing "several" media outlets. (The Los Angeles Times confirmed the news about Wooden's health Thursday evening.)
The confusion regarding Wooden's health brings to mind other high-profile gaffes in journalism history, such as the Chicago Tribune's "Dewey Beats Truman" headline that incorrectly named Thomas Dewey the winner of the 1948 presidential election, or the premature reports of Joe DiMaggio's death in 1999.
The difference now, of course, is the breathtaking speed and global reach of the Internet, which can turn almost any rumor or half-truth into a global trending topic that's accepted as fact. For all of the Web's transformative power when it comes to news and information, it has also clearly lowered the bar when it comes to traditional journalistic values.
Like, say, fact-checking.