We had an interesting clash of "new media" versus "old media" this week.
On Monday afternoon, we had the news that a body had been recovered from the Fox River here in Oshkosh. Both the Winnebago County Sheriff's Department and the Oshkosh Police Department refused to issue information on the identity of the person--or if the discovery was connected to the earlier reported disappearance of Michael Philbin--son of Packers Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin. We were told that the identity would be released after a positive identification was made and the family had been notified.
Until a couple of years ago, that would have been pretty much the end of the story until a press release or a news conference was held to release the name and the circumstances surrounding the person's death. But now, the rules have changed. It wasn't even an hour after the recovery of the body that those of us who follow Green Bay Packers players on Twitter started getting tweets about "the loss Joe Philbin and his family have suffered." TJ Lang, JerMichael Finley and his wife were among those "confirming" on their own that the victim was, in fact, Michael Philbin. NFL.com was one of the first to go with a story that Joe Philbin's son had died--and the rest of us pretty much followed suit by 5:00 pm.
In his press conference Tuesday, Oshkosh Police Chief Scott Greuel seemed a bit irritated that everyone was reporting the name without his "official" confirmation--saying the department had waited out of "respect for the wishes of the family"--and that is certainly understandable. I know I would prefer to hear from family about a death than to hear it on the radio or see it on TV. But then somebody has to put a muzzle on others in the know as well. Those Packers players who tweeted have follower numbers larger than the WOSH listening audience--making them their own form of mass media. They need to consider that as soon as they hit "send" it's no different than if they had stepped up to the microphone in their own press conference.
Does that mean that everything we reporters see on Twitter or Facebook should be reported as true and accurate? No way. The key is--and always should be--the source of the information. Another good example followed our other ice-related tragedy so far this winter, where an Oshkosh North student drowned in a pond near his home. Before his name was released I was directed to several Twitter posts and Facebook "tributes" that mentioned his name. But in those cases the posts all came from teenagers. And if there is one thing any parent can tell you, it's kids will believe anything and they aren't above lying about stuff or spreading unfounded rumors about someone as well.
As my first boss in radio news told me, you'd better be sure when you report someone is dead--because only one person has ever been able to bring people back to life--you ain't him.