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AT THE MOVIES : WEB SCOUT

Faster than ink, but not indelible

January 24, 2008|David Sarno | Times Staff Writer

Celebrity death: No other kind of event electrifies and illuminates so many parts of the Internet at once. Heath Ledger's sad, untimely end triggered almost instantaneous reactions in the online media, social networks and just about anywhere users could post their thoughts and multimedia memorials.

Caution, speed-reporting ahead: If you watched the story of Ledger's death explode chaotically across the Web on Tuesday, with facts, errors, inconsistencies and confusions flying every which way, you may have concluded that in the new digital media's race to break stories in minutes, accuracy has been left in the dust.

Chief among the media's switchbacks was the early nonfact that Ledger's death had taken place at the New York apartment of Mary-Kate Olsen. Celebrity news site TMZ.com and even the New York Times' City Room blog reported this bit of misinformation before they unreported it.

Importantly, however, neither the New York Times nor TMZ got it wrong. It was the New York Police Department spokesman who had the story mixed up -- the media were simply parroting incorrect information.

When the spokesman later corrected himself, the sites rushed to update the story, but readers were critical of the changes.

"TMZ is in such a rush to break the news," was one comment, echoing dozens of others, "that they are usually wrong first."

But here's the problem: Stories have never arrived to the world fully formed or vetted. Journalists have generally had hours -- not minutes or seconds -- to craft a story from the blast wave of facts and factoids that comes in the wake of a bombshell.

What people are seeing now is an old-fashioned process -- reporting -- as it unfolds in real time. If the public wants its information as raw and immediate as possible, it'll have to get used to a few missteps along the way and maybe even approach breaking stories with a bit of skepticism, like a good reporter would.

Here's an easy one to be skeptical about: Another TMZ post, titled "The Last Photograph of Heath Ledger," appeared soon after the story began circulating and featured a shot of Ledger from Saturday on the set of his latest movie. The photo was credited to INF, another celebrity gossip site.

A moment's reflection would tell you that if Ledger died Tuesday, it's more than a little unlikely that the "last photograph" of him was taken three days earlier.

So none of his friends, street gawkers, or Ledger himself took a single cellphone photo in the interim? When the point was brought up to a TMZ spokeswoman, she acknowledged the possibility.

YouTube tributes, Facebook vigils: Waves of memorial activity quickly wash over user-generated media sites -- video eulogies on YouTube, photo montages on Flickr and virtual mourning groups on Facebook.

YouTube tributes are saccharine affairs -- usually a collage of photos accompanied by somber music. They function more as a cathartic exercise for the fan than something a viewer would watch all the way through.

Just a few hours after the news had spread, Facebook users had created dozens of Ledger-related groups and real-world events on the social network.

The Heath Ledger Memorial group, where fans could share favorite Ledger movies and memories, had 5,800 members by early Wednesday.

"All week long to commemorate a great actor," wrote the coordinator of one tribute at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., "we will be showing Heath Ledger movies in RM 288." Forty-six people have signed up to attend.

Does this thing work?: Celebritydeathbeeper.com promises to e-mail or text-message you "when a celebrity or sports figure dies. Free. Simple. Easy. Fun."

Their Ledger beep, however, came nearly 90 minutes after the story first appeared online.

No wonder no one uses beepers anymore.

--

david.sarno@latimes.com

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