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“On the Internet Mr. Jackson was dead, and on TV he was still alive.”

What does it take to confirm – scratch that, report – a celebrity death? Any death? Any piece of news? And whom can you trust in that reporting? These are the core media questions raised by Michael Jackson’s death on Thursday, which TMZ reported first, and without reservation – but which most “reputable” news sources declined to take as confirmation, instead waiting for almost an hour to report the death themselves, only after independent confirmation from the LA Times. In his report on those unfolding events in the New York Times, Brian Stelter doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, but he certainly sketches out just how stark the difference they made was on Thursday afternoon:

“For more than an hour, TMZ was essentially the only outlet claiming that Mr. Jackson was dead. Television and newspaper journalists read the TMZ report but largely held off on repeating it, for fear of making a mistake. Still, the bulletin traversed the Web with remarkable speed, creating a stark divide: on the Internet Mr. Jackson was dead, and on TV he was still alive.”

Other points of note:

  • TMZ posted news of death at 5:20 pm — a full six minutes before the coroner’s office (and the Jackson family)
  • The reason TMZ was alone with the news for so long was that no one else could confirm it. TMZ did not source its report. “Paramedics on the scene ‘said he was dead long before we posted the story,’ Mr. Levin said, perhaps providing a hint about the his sources.” (More than a hint is provided here, in this TMZ report from Friday, “Emergency Workers Felt Jackson Dead At Scene.”)
  • “The Jackson entry in Wikipedia appeared to have set the record as the most-viewed article in the eight-year history of the online encyclopedia”
  • And this part: “‘We are totally wired in this town,’ Harvey Levin, the site’s editor in chief, said in a telephone interview Friday.” Clearly.

Great article, but slap on the wrist for whichever editor did this: “Twitter saw the biggest increase in short tweets since the presidential election.” As opposed to long tweets? I’m sure Brian Stelter didn’t write that. A tweet is short by definition. C’mon, NYT, get with it.

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