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Dead, alive and dead again: how did the media get Tom Petty’s death so wrong?

How did CBS, Rolling StonePEOPLE, The Huffington Post and Variety end up claiming Petty had died hours before he had?

If you believe everything you read, Tom Petty died on Monday 2 October 2017 – and then miraculously came back to life a few hours later.

Tributes to Petty filled social and traditional media late on Monday, after several respected news outlets reported that Petty had passed away at age 66. At the time of those stories, Petty was still alive, albeit unconscious and unresponsive. This was, understandably, very upsetting for his family. “My dad is not dead yet but your fucking magazine is,” Petty’s daughter AnnaKim Violette wrote in an Instagram post aimed at Rolling Stone. He was taken off life support at 8.40pm PDT in the UCLA Santa Monica Hospital.

Dead, alive and dead again: how did the media mess up so badly?

The story began, as celebrity deaths so often do, with TMZ. Reporting his heart attack at midday PDT on Monday, the gossip site wrote: “Tom Petty was rushed to the hospital Sunday night after he was found unconscious, not breathing and in full cardiac arrest... law enforcement sources tell TMZ.” Barely half an hour later, they had updated the story: “12.30 PM PT -- We're told after Petty got to the hospital he had no brain activity and a decision was made to pull life support.”

In the ensuing minutes, many news outlets reported that Petty was dead: CBS News had a story up at 1pm citing the Los Angeles Police Department as the source that confirmed his passing. Rolling Stone, PEOPLE, The Huffington Post, Variety and numerous other sites also posted articles claiming Petty had died based on the CBS reporting and its supposed confirmation.

TMZ soon disputed the claims. At 1.35pm, it added a second update to its post: “Sources tell us at 10:30 Monday morning a chaplain was called to Tom's hospital room. We're told the family has a ‘do not resuscitate’ order on Tom. The singer is not expected to live through the day, but he's still clinging to life. A report that the LAPD confirmed the singer's death is inaccurate -- the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept. handled the emergency.”

By 2pm, the LAPD was disputing the reports, making a statement on Twitter. “The LAPD has no information about the passing of singer Tom Petty,” they said. “Initial information was inadvertantly provided to some media sources. However, the LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting.”

It was around this time that Petty’s daughter took to Instagram to critique Rolling Stone, adding, “How dare you report that my father has died just to get press because your articles and photos are so dated.” Meanwhile outlets continued to report on Petty’s condition: TMZ posted the 911 call made by his wife earlier that day, adding, “He's not expected to survive the day.” Outlets described him as “clinging to life”.

After hours of false reports, corrections and rumors, Buzzfeed finally confirmed Petty’s death at 8.40 PST thanks to a statement from his long-time manager, Tony Dimitriades:

“On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.”

The chaotic reporting around Tom Petty’s passing is hardly new: CNN declared Kurt Cobain dead a month before he actually died, gossip columnist Liz Smith declared Nora Ephron was dead hours before her passing, incorrect reports of Lamar Odom’s death reached his family when he overdosed in 2015.

These aren’t quite death hoaxes, like ones that have dogged celebrities like Jack Black and Miley Cyrus, but a serious and upsetting mistake to make at a deeply sensitive time for the figure’s family.

But the extent to which the mistake was replicated by supposedly reliable sources does speak to a worrying moment in journalism – one where it’s more important to be first than it is to be correct.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Will the Brexit Cabinet talks end in a “three baskets” approach?

The joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. 

It's decision day in the Brexit talks. Again.

The Brexit inner Cabinet will meet to hammer out not its final position, but the shape of its negotiating position. The expected result: an agreement on an end state in which the United Kingdom agrees it will follow EU regulations as it were still a member, for example on aviation; will agree to follow EU objectives but go about them in its own way, for example on recycling, where the British government wants to do more on plastic and less on glass; and finally, in some areas, it will go its way completely, for instance on financial services. Or as it has come to be known in Whitehall, the "three baskets" approach.

For all the lengthy run-up, this bit isn't expected to be difficult: the joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. There are two difficulties: the first is that the EU27 won't play ball, and the second is that MPs will kick off when it emerges that their preferred basket is essentially empty.

The objections of the EU27 are perhaps somewhat overwritten. The demands of keeping the Irish border open, maintaining Europol and EU-wide defence operations means that in a large number of areas, a very close regulatory and political relationship is in everyone's interests. But everyone knows that in order for the Conservative government to actually sign the thing, there is going to have to be some divergence somewhere.

The bigger problem is what happens here at home when it turns out that the third basket - that is to say, full regulatory autonomy - is confined to fishing and the "industries of the future". The European Research Group may have a few more letters left to send yet.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.