Any hardened newsie will tell you that the death of a sitting member of Congress, especially unexpected, is Big Breaking News. But before reporting the death, you probably should make sure that the public official is actually, well, dead.
That's the problem that was faced by both print and broadcast media in Northeast Ohio on Wednesday, with the death of long-time Cleveland congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones after she suffered a brain aneurism.
About two hours after a noon press conference announcing her grave condition, a number of media outlets both in Ohio and beyond reported the congresswoman's death - prematurely, as it turned out.
Since print media is no longer "print only", the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Tubbs Jones to be dead on its Cleveland.com site...at 1:49 Wednesday afternoon.
In its follow-up about the "confusion" over the early death report, an unnamed PD staffer wrote last night on Cleveland.com:
The newspaper based the report on several trusted sources, who described Tubbs Jones as either dead or brain dead. In Ohio, people are considered legally dead when doctors declare them brain dead.
Tubbs Jones' doctors, however, said at a mid-afternoon news conference that her brain had "very limited brain function" following the bursting of an aneurysm in an inaccessible part of her brain.
The PD story says a number of outlets, including the Associated Press and CNN, also reported Congresswoman Tubbs Jones' death a full four hours before it actually happened, announced to be 6:12 that same evening.
We weren't near a TV at the time this all happened. We know ABC affiliate WEWS/5 "NewsChannel 5" passed along the story on their NewsNet5 website, and we also saw the PD's item on Cleveland.com.
Radio-wise, we did actually hear Clear Channel talk WTAM/1100 interrupt a portion of Rush Limbaugh's third hour to pass along the death reports.
We heard WTAM news director Darren Toms point out that the information was coming "from a variety of news sources", including the Associated Press and FOX News...both of which supply news content to the station. Toms did not, as far as we know - we missed the first few seconds - say that WTAM was confirming the reports.
But caution was displayed at least at one local media outlet, Gannett NBC affiliate WKYC/3, as the station's Frank Macek writes in his "Director's Cut Blog" item about the station's 5 PM news special on the story Wednesday evening:
We'll provide the latest developments on her condition - as it was erraneously reported by every OTHER Cleveland market station and CNN that she had died earlier in the day. WKYC reported the facts, and respected the truth with responsible reporting that indicated she remained in critical condition.
That item was written after the erroneous reports, but before Tubbs Jones' official death announcement later that day.
And we're not sure we blame the electronic media outlets that jumped the gun, particularly if their own national news sources (with sources the local stations don't have in Washington, for example) are reporting the death.
It's not like they were using information from an anonymously-published blog about local media as the sole source of their story. Not like any small city Northeast Ohio newspaper would ever do that...right, Dover/New Philadelphia folks?
Anyway, it's just another reminder that in the rush to "be first" in today's full-time, 24/7 news world, perhaps some more caution should be employed...even by the "print media".
We do not know if any family, friends or associates of the late Congresswoman read OMW, but if you do...we offer our condolences on her death...