Digital media / Journalism

Back-and-forth reports on Emanuel Steward death show web-speed coverage is slippery

Breaking news coverage is hard, especially when information from presumably reliable sources is fuzzy or inconsistent.

That led The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and a few national news sites to report Thursday that legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward had died – only to be contradicted initially by family members a handful of hours before they confirmed the news.

People who chase publishable facts shouldn’t throw stones, so this isn’t a slam on how journalists got ahead of a developing situation. Conversations with two insiders suggest that the reports even may have been accurate, though unconfirmed and premature.

The first solid report came from WXYZ sports director Tom Leyden at 3:52 p.m. Thursday:

Legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward has passed away at age 68 and the family has confirmed his death.

Steward’s sister, Diane, called me at 3:29 and said: “He went home about half an hour ago.  He fought harder than Hagler and Hearns.  I’ll tell you more later.  It’s too tough right now.”

A Detroit News sportswriter, who also spoke with the sister Thursday morning, drafted a preparatory article to await firm confirmation — only to see it posted online at 12:47 p.m. by an associate sports editor who hadn’t read the writer’s cautionary email.

“It was miscommunication,” managing editor Don Nauss explained by phone. “We tried to assure that we had it properly confirmed.”

The article was yanked, but was online long enough to provoke reader criticisms.

“There was an actual story there with a confirmation from a family member. Then I hit refresh — headline and text gone, comments remain,” noted Aaron Foley, associate editor at Ward’s Automotive Group in Southfield, in a public Facebook post. “The right thing to do would be a dead link, with a separate story explaining the foul-up.”

Reader Steve LeVine tweeted to The News: “How about removing your article that says he died?” Another commenter, using a screen name, was harsher: “That’s what happens when you endorse Romney, you start flip flopping. Get facts straight or simply close mouth.”

Early in the day, The News’ social media team tweeted at 9:59 a.m.: “We have not confirmed the death of Emanuel Steward. The news regrets the error” — a reference to not-ready-for-prime-time tweets before then.

The Detroit Free Press also scrambled to uncook what it served to website visitors.

“Friends: Detroit boxing icon Emanuel Steward has died,” said a noontime head. By 2 p.m. or so, the paper tweeted: “We apologize for conflicting reports. Family gathering with ailing Detroit boxing icon Emanuel Steward.” That included a link to a five-paragraph story with this information:

“At this point, I’m asking EVERYBODY to LEAVE US ALONE so that we can comfort and communicate with Emanuel,” Steward’s sister Diane Steward-Jones emailed to the Free Press today. “His surgical team just dropped by and scoffed at the reports he is dead.”

Citing friends of Steward, the Free Press incorrectly reported earlier today that Steward was dead. The Free Press regrets the error, and we apologize to the Steward family.

Tom Leyden, WXYZ

Leyden of WXYZ, a reporter and anchor who was promoted to sports director four months ago, has no apology and nothing to regret. “Legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward remains in the care of doctors and is still alive, despite numerous reports of his passing,” says the lead of his morning report on the station’s site.

But inevitably, the spill had spread.

“Legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward dead at 68,” Yahoo! Sports blogged around 1 p.m. in a post later pulled. “Emanuel Steward’s legacy will live on after his death” said the type atop a BleacherReport.com post that was technically accurate, if not well-timed. It also was removed.

At BoxingScene.com, blogger Jake Donovan leads his post by describing “a massive fumbling of the snap among the media . . .Unconfirmed rumors of his passing continue to swirl.”

Amid the media maelstrom, a sensitive tweet came from WXYZ assignment editor-producer Sarah Willets: “I just feel bad his family is having to deal with all this in the middle of an already tough time,” she commented before the confirmation.

And around 2:30 p.m., former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis tweeted: “Today has been an emotional roller coaster. I wish Manny’s family had used twitter or website to set record straight.”

[This post also appears at the Deadline Detroit news site, where I am a contributor.]

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