What the Michael Jackson / TMZ news timing teaches us about credibility

by Jason Preston on June 25, 2009

Over the next few days, I think we’ll see a lot of people claiming that “old media” is irrelevant because it took over half an hour for them to confirm Michael Jackson’s death after it was posted on TMZ. These people are wrong.

The fact that Twitter was filled with tweets like this:

no one other than TMZ is claiming to have evidence that he’s dead. so either they’ve got a source no one else does, or… something. 42 minutes ago from web Bill Palmer

Goes to show how much credibility TMZ has. The public on Twitter, and I’ll wager the public at large, have learned to approach early breaking stories from non-established brands with skepticism. TMZ is well known, yes, but it’s not well known for careful fact-checking.

If anything, what this incident proves is that credibility is a very valuable quality. TMZ bet on the accuracy of their story, and they won that bet. Why make the bet? They want to earn a reputation for credibility.

And you know what “old media” has in droves right now? Credibility. Michael Jackson wasn’t, as far as I could tell, widely considered dead until the LA Times independently reported that doctors had pronounced him dead.

It’s not true until I say it’s true. That’s power.

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{ 5 trackbacks }

The Death of Michael Jackson: New Media Broke the Story, Old Media OK’d It | The Blog Herald
06.26.09 at 1:43 am
What the Michael Jackson / TMZ news timing teaches us about … | Michael Jackson Dies
06.26.09 at 2:02 am
Reporting the News: If You Ain't First, You're Last
06.26.09 at 9:06 am
The Death of Michael Jackson: New Media Broke the Story, Old Media OK’d It | BLOGCHINA
06.27.09 at 4:14 am
Copy Editing — Eat Sleep Publish
07.14.09 at 10:51 am


1 Andre 06.25.09 at 4:03 pm

Good points, but I’m not sure I completely agree with your assessment of TMZ’s motives. Is it credibility that they’re after, or bragging rights to scooping everyone else including the mainstream media.

I still think it’s a shoot first and apologize later kind of mentality over there.

2 Jason Preston 06.25.09 at 4:18 pm

Andre – I think that “bragging rights,” over the long term, is basically the same as shooting for credibility. After all, you’re only “ahead” of others on news if you’re right about it, and you’re consistently ahead.

3 Anon 06.25.09 at 6:15 pm

This blog post sucked.

4 David 06.25.09 at 6:19 pm

I personally think that TMZ shouldn’t be the key source to news, they’ve been known for getting things wrong quite often. Somehow I feel as if they got lucky with what is going on.

Now if it turned out differently it most likely would’ve ended them completely.

5 chad engle 06.25.09 at 6:21 pm

Traffic is another one for being ahead of the game. Its going to get 80 billion more hits than something else. (exaggeration) but the point being is that if they have it before everyone else, especially in a story this big they have all the traffic. But, bragging rights and credibility fit in there as well. So, it will be interesting to see how the relationship between the mediums changes in the next few weeks. Good Post.

6 Emily 06.25.09 at 6:23 pm

Just the incredible backlash that TMZ would have received if it weren’t true was enough to make me believe their story.

7 Kakie 06.25.09 at 6:24 pm

I was not skeptical and believed TMZ as soon as they reported it. They are in LA and must have had a source. When I told my sister it was reported by TMZ she didn’t believe it. She actually turned on CNN and said, “well they haven’t reported it” I told her; “Just wait, you have no idea about the power of Twitter and how early and quickly news spreads through it. It has proven it is quicker than mainstream media” JMO

8 Yona 06.25.09 at 6:27 pm

When I first saw that TMZ was the only source reporting Jackson’s death, I was highly skeptical. I thought they had jumped the gun, especially when CNN was reporting Jackson in a coma. I wasn’t completely satisfied until I saw the featured Yahoo headline and CNN report his passing.

@Jason – completely agree with you —> “After all, you’re only “ahead” of others on news if you’re right about it, and you’re consistently ahead.”

9 Sasha H. Muradali 06.25.09 at 6:31 pm

Good article (and quick writing.) 🙂

10 Lara Chelak 06.25.09 at 7:17 pm

Great points Jason. In the long term this event will exist as a strong indication of the constantly evolving power of digital news distribution.

11 Andru Edwards 06.25.09 at 9:49 pm

“it’s not true until I say it’s true…”

except, in reality, it WAS true. The news outlets that were saying he wasn’t dead were spreading false information.

A few days ago the WSJ published an unsourced article on Steve Jobs and his liver transplant, and other outlets ran with it, just based on WSJ’s word. Looks like TMZ just earned some credibility to me. None of the other major outlets gave them credit for breaking the story, but CNN did full credit them. Good.

12 Curtis Bloes 06.25.09 at 11:18 pm

TMZ is the future. TMZ is the model that works.

13 Shea 06.26.09 at 12:02 am

Something interesting about this debate is that the Los Angeles CBS radio affiliate KNX was sourcing TMZ when announcing the passing and were vigorously touting TMZ’s reliability in covering this beat. When the Times joined them, I think you may have heard a sigh of relief in the KNX newsroom but the fact remains that they were willing to link their credibility with TMZ.

14 BobM 06.26.09 at 12:16 am

Just catching up (morning here in Amsterdam)…

Provocative post–who is the/an authority? Regaining credibility is not easy once it’s lost.

15 Kathy E Gill 06.26.09 at 2:47 am

I wish your optimism was solid… but the still trending “Jeff Goldblum” topic illustrates gullibility.

One minute ago:
NaomiLangenberg ??? what? MJ, Farrah Fawcett and Jeff Goldblum died all on the same day?

And 14 minutes ago:
NickHolmes PL Farrah Fawcett , MJ -R.I.P and Jeff Goldblum as well apparently

16 Wendy 06.26.09 at 8:03 am

Once upon a time, long before the primacy of the Web, the mainstream media threw itself on the altar of pop culture, shamelessly “covering” the deaths of Elvis and Princess Diana and the O.J. fiasco at the expense of hard, serious news. For days, weeks and months.

That a celebrity gossip site got the “scoop” here indicates nothing about the credibility of the MSM, which far too often squanders its role as a government watchdog in favor of pandering to empty souls waiting outside hospitals, speaking of a departed pop star as if he were family.

The MSM has become increasingly irrevelant precisely because it has wasted so many resources chasing down stupid celebrity and “fark” news like this for years.

Is “beating” the likes of TMZ what we want our leading news organization to accomplish?

This is a newsworthy story, of course, given Jackson’s popularity and imprint on popular culture.

But when even the few remaining quality newspapers are gutting their local arts, books and cultural coverage in favor of more mindless entertainment trash, hailing the Times “confirmation” of Jackson’s death is a very small consolation.

17 Gaby 06.26.09 at 8:55 am


Good points, and I agree true.

However, if MJ had’ve collapsed and died in front of a switched on vouyeristic audience (fans perhaps?) and posted tweets and pics – old media wouldn’t have had the upper hand. Citizen journalism is credible when witnessed – see http://bit.ly/PBGVp.


18 Gaby 06.26.09 at 8:58 am

voyeuristic spelt as such. of course. 🙂

19 Andre 06.26.09 at 10:21 am

I guess I’m drawing a (perhaps artificial and arbitrary) dividing line between their everyday business of celebrity dish, and these “special” breaking news stories that have broader appeal beyond their core audience.

Since they do have a solid reputation for the former, can they simply afford to throw a Hail Mary at times like these, knowing that it’s gold if they’re right, but quickly forgotten if they aren’t? In some ways it seems that their gossip-centric brand allows them to be “sloppier” than old media shops and still get ahead over time.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to them. They got it right, and should get the credit for it.

20 Norman Harman 06.26.09 at 10:37 am

Breaking news is important, I guess. It’s also a commodity. Once you announce it, everyone is free to spread the word on twitter, SMS, their blogs, their websites, by word of mouth, even archaic means such as calling your friend on the phone 😉 And they may or may not mention where they heard the news.

The place for journalism, esp moving fwd, is analysis, depth, opinion, and details. Last night someone told me about Jackson dieing, but this morning I went looking in my local paper for the article I knew would be there giving details on the death and a “retrospective” of his life and career. That is what Real News organizations should be about. That is their strength and a product that others (lacking paid, skilled, veteran, connected reporters) have trouble matching.

I tell people about breaking news, I link to in depth articles. Guess which is more valuable advertising revenue wise?

21 Jason Preston 06.26.09 at 11:46 am

Chad – Traffic is a big reason to be “first,” yeah; they got a whole bunch of links and traffic from being the first to announce his death. The problem with chasing traffic like that is that it’s a terrible business strategy – you’ll always be chasing the next hit, and you’ll be in a highly competitive market.

I think that online news sources based around being there first are going to be ultra-low-margin ultra-high-work enterprises, and in the end it’s not worth the time for most news orgs. It’s far better to develop a reputation for authority, or length, or expertise, or something else, because you’re going to be able to sustain a better business that way.

Kakie – Sounds like TMZ has won you over as a believer in their credibility. That’s great for TMZ, and great for you, as long as they continue to earn that trust.

Andre – Yes, they have room to be sloppier, but the cost of that sloppiness is exactly what we just saw—mistrust. Both are valid options for a news business, it’s just a matter of how you want to be perceived: lucky or good.

22 Jason Preston 06.27.09 at 9:32 am


except, in reality, it WAS true. The news outlets that were saying he wasn’t dead were spreading false information.

That’s not actually the case; they were only saying they didn’t know whether he was dead or not. The trick about sourcing TMZ vs the WSJ, and the whole credibility issue in general, is whether or not you’re willing to bet your organization’s reputation on the work of another organization.

The WSJ has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars earning the trust of the industry, so if they break a story and have to play their sources close to the chest, everyone believes them. TMZ may get there too, if they work at it and get things consistently correct.

23 Steve 06.29.09 at 8:36 am

Could it be possible that the reason the “mainstream” press held off on the story was out of respect for the family (allowing time for authorities to contact them first)…something TMZ is purposely (and thinly disguised malice) is clearly lacking.

24 bchnyc 06.29.09 at 8:39 am

I’m just glad that TMZ only covers celebrity news (at least for now). Imagine the impact of their tweets regarding world news or say calling a presidential election…

25 David Locke 06.29.09 at 10:04 am

I’ve found that the very first report is usually true and unspun. Subsequent reports get spun. Once the spin begins the truth is lost, the story takes its place. Subsequently, the story is reinforced. Then, it takes history to reveal the course of the lie, and fundamental truth of the initial report.

26 /jonnnydrama 06.30.09 at 6:54 pm

Hey now, I must say, every “breaking” story I’ve heard from TMZ has been accurate. Wish I had examples. Take my word for it.

27 Allison 07.04.09 at 3:23 am

Sorry, but I disagree. I can cite too may examples of Old Media getting things wrong and often never even correcting them. A 2005 LATimes article about CNN’s news director Eason Jordan was so blatantly wrong they had to issue a correction, and then a correction of the correction because the correction was also wrong.

And I already knew TMZ had dead-on accurate (pardon the pun) sources.

Old Media has no claim to superior credibility.

28 Jason Preston 07.06.09 at 11:21 am

Allison – I think you have to distinguish between credibility and accuracy. In many cases, “old media” does get things wrong, but they’ve built, over a long period of time and with billions of dollars, “credibility.”

An outlet can be accurate but not credible. An outlet can be credible but not accurate. Doesn’t change the fact that credibility is worth money.

29 purplerubbershoes 07.13.09 at 12:26 am

I chanced upon your blog while surfing the net for Michael Jackson stories. There are a lot of good insights in your article, as well as in the comments that followed. “It’s not true until I say it’s true.” That IS powerful stuff. As a sidebar comment – I only wish TMZ would hire good editors and proofreaders. 🙂 I keep seeing a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes in their posts. Call me a nitpicker, but it’s painful to see. I’m all for the speedy (and hopefully accurate) reporting that “new media” brings, but I’m also all for good writing, spelling and grammar as well (things that “old media” still has)! I’m sure if you want to be considered “credible”, you need to throw in and combine those elements!

30 purplerubbershoes 07.13.09 at 12:29 am

See. I wish I had a good editor myself. 🙂 Drop the “as well” after “grammar”. The earlier “also” in that sentence already makes the point. 🙂

31 Jason Preston 07.13.09 at 1:30 pm

purplerubbershoes – Oh, the irony! 😉

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