Posted by: mobrienweiss | February 5, 2014

Twitter coverage of death of Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman

Some questions for you journalist-types:

  • Did the media do a disservice to Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s family by tweeting out news of his death via drug overdose BEFORE his family was notified?
  • Should a reporter who reportedly received the information from an unnamed police officer have held back on the story until Hoffman’s family was informed, despite the fact that other news outlets were also chasing the story?
  • Did the 10+ million Google searches for information on Hoffman and the millions of tweets about him indicate that people were craving information therefore the journalists were simply providing what their audience wanted?
  • Did the grieving Twitter users — film critics, film buffs and others — who took to the social media platform to mourn the 46-year-old use Twitter to mourn and remember together, as an ad hoc community?

There are no easy answers to these questions which represent the multiplicity of complications which arise when the immediacy of social media, news gathering, professional competition and tragedy all converge.

Journalists have always wanted to get a story first, to own it, to claim it, to stake it out as their territory. That was a simpler task when it was just limited to getting your story published in the newspaper. Even as the influence of TV grew and the 24/7 pressure of cable television news — with its never-sated appetite for new information — bore down, news didn’t spread as fast or as widely or as deeply into the populace as it does now on social media.

Wall Street Journal tweet on Philip Seymour Hoffman's death

Writer Stacia L. Brown came down hard on the Wall Street Journal which was the first news organization to tweet out the Hoffman news. Writing in Salon, Brown said:

“Philip Seymour Hoffman died yesterday. This was the first and only thing we were told. Arguably, we were told too soon. The news can via a tweet from the Wall Street Journal, preceded by that all-too-familiar word, ‘Breaking.’ But aside from the text of the tweet itself, there was no additional reporting to verify the announcement. That would come approximately 17 minutes later. In the interim, the news went viral. Online publications were willing to believe the Wall Street Journal before it posted a news brief to corroborate its tweet, but prefaced its own write-ups and re-tweets with disclaimers like, ‘no confirmation yet, but …'”

She continued:

“Seventeen minutes isn’t a long time. But it’s long enough to ask questions about what it means to responsibly, ethically break news. It’s long enough to wonder if it’s worth risking the credibility of a historically reputable print brand just to be the first to tweet a celebrity’s death online. By the time the Wall Street Journal posted its first brief, the New York Times had also begun to report facts in the case. The most disturbing of these was the mention that an official had requested anonymity as he gave sensitive details to the press — including that Hoffman passed of an apparent overdose ‘because he was not certain the actor’s family had been informed of the death.’ … [W]ithin the space of 17 minutes, the Internet-accessing world may have known that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his apartment before his three young children, with whom he was scheduled to spend the day, and his longtime partner, Mimi O’Donnell.” 

What should the reporter have done, wait for word from the police officer who leaked the info to confirm that Hoffman’s family had been contacted? That’s what students in my social media class thought when we discussed the matter. Recognizing the current pressure to publish the moment a journalist obtains this news, the students were largely in agreement that waiting wouldn’t have hurt anyone competitively and certainly would have been the ethical thing to do.

In the meantime, writing on the New Yorker‘s web site, Paul Ford and Matt Buchanan said Twitter provided a forum for those who were stunned, saddened and seeking answers about Hoffman’s sudden death, engaging in what they called “peer-to-peer grieving:”

“Hoffman’s passing was a rare event: an adored artist unexpectedly died using heroin. There was a sudden gap between his warm, vulnerable public persona and the squalid reality of his death. Any information that helped to make sense of that gap, or provided a sense of closure, found a reader. Unlike with the recent death of, say, Pete Seeger, there were no pre-written obituaries that could immediately pop up online.

In the pause between the initial news and the more detailed reports, social media began to hammer out its own narrative of what had happened and what Hoffman’s life meant. On Twitter and Facebook, there was a flood of images, video clips, and animated GIFs, as well as quotes from past interviews about fame and craft and addiction. In the absence of a ready-made narrative about Hoffman, Twitter supplied one through the piecemeal brute-force chronology of the cascading timeline; every second or two, a new piece of content arrived. Gradually, the stories provided by media outlets grew denser. A few filled in the details of his death and reported that a drug overdose was involved; many more focused on the highlights of his life.”

All kinds of Twitter users, Ford and Buchanan said, used social media to “search to find the most sincere image, the most meaningful quote, the most relevant film clip. Death still means that people go looking for answers, but now they use Google. Real-time chronology, trending subjects and curated news feeds mean that the internet, with its mix of individual expression and automated sorting, writes the first draft of the eulogy.”

Twitter, for good or for ill, is the tool to which many of us now turn to for information, particularly when there’s breaking news. And it’s also a tool journalists need to remember to use ethically and judiciously.

(The above YouTube video was posted by Paul Ford to represent the Google News page as new info was uploaded about Hoffman’s death. Each second represents 10 minutes.)



  1. I can’t imagine finding out about a loved one passing in such a manner. It brings to mind the death of Corey Monteith, who similarly died of a fatal rug overdose this past summer. I remember reading that his girlfriend found about his death on the evening news. Ethically, I feel as though it’s best to wait a decent amount of time–at least until family can be notified– before turning someone’s passing into a media circus. But then again, by the time family has been notifies, it’s already old news.

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