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?

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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 the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.