It didn't so much spread as explode. Within minutes on Friday afternoon, the then unconfirmed news of Gerry Ryan's death was everywhere. Information that once would have gradually seeped out in the mainstream media unfolded sooner and faster via social networking site Twitter. Ryan, the country's most controversial and well-known broadcaster was dead, suddenly, tragically, shockingly. But who was going to get the scoop?
Newsrooms began getting word of Ryan's passing at around 2pm, approximately two hours after his partner, Melanie Verwoerd, found his body lying beside the bed in his Leeson Street basement apartment. Like any breaking stories, especially those concerning the death of a high-profile person, it's a case of rumour until proven fact. Conversations swirled between journalists in various organisations digging for information, trying to find out what others had heard, seeing what page everyone was on. But for perhaps the first time in Ireland with a story so big, those conversations were also transferred online.
Message boards, blogs and other online news sources can be hot beds of rumour, misinformation and dodgy 'facts' (just like some newspapers), so it wasn't surprising that, shortly after newsrooms started buzzing, so did conversations online. This time, the medium was Twitter. Many journalists were cautiously vague, referring only to the fact that a shocking story was emerging, not naming names. Others weren't so shy. As information of Ryan's death began to break on Twitter, arguments about the dissemination of that information ran concurrently.
Adrian Weckler, a journalist with the Sunday Business Post, caused the most controversy. His first tweet read "Gerry Ryan...? What?" followed by "Rumour mill about Gerry Ryan..."; "Another source in here claiming Gerry Ryan is dead"; then, "Spreading like wildfire. Gaining credence. Still unconfirmed, though."
His tweeting clearly annoyed other journalists with the same information, who chose to hold back on tweeting about anything before it was confirmed. In some eyes, it's one thing for Joe Citizen to gossip about unconfirmed reports, or rumours surrounding a breaking story, but another thing for a journalist to publish those sensitive unconfirmed facts online. While RTE was carrying on as normal, with Joe Duffy and Derek Mooney's programmes on air, and papers and radio stations scrambling to confirm the death before bursting with the information, the battle for and against talking about something that wasn't yet fact was being fought on Twitter.
The power and attraction of Twitter, apart from being a place where journalists go to criticise each other, is amplified during periods of breaking news. It's a hub of chatter, with information seeping left, right and centre, and like most media genres, some sources are more reliable than others. Journalists carry more weight when it comes to possessing and distributing information. They are meant to be 'in the know', as it were, so when they tweet during confusing moments of a story breaking, when it's hard to know who to believe, their information is presumed more solid. Naturally, with that prerogative, there is a certain amount of responsibility, and it was the decision by some journalists and bloggers to tweet about Ryan's death before it was confirmed that is still being debated this weekend.
Matt Cooper tweeted "totally agree" when Frank Fitzgibbon, Irish editor of the Sunday Times tweeted, "Adrian [Weckler], might be best if you wait until it's confirmed, do you not think? I believe he has a family." Fitzgibbon followed it up by another retort to the Business Post technology journalist, "Our sources were equally strong but jumping the official gun on matters like this still seems wrong. Or maybe it's just me"; then "And you're totally satisfied that all his family members had been contacted?" to which Weckler replied, "No. But it's too big a story to wait."
Cooper then retweeted (an act of republishing a tweet if the information is of interest) a message from Karl Brophy, former Irish Independent journalist and now partner in the Hume Brophy PR consultancy firm, which said, "Social media might have created citizen journalists but it has turned previously proper journalists into gossipy citizens."
Most RTE broadcasters on Twitter were silent on the issue. 2FM presenter Rick O'Shea tweeted "Am attempting to verify the Gerry Ryan story doing the rounds... Calm heads lads..." followed by "Can anyone tell me where the Gerry Ryan story is coming from?" When it was confirmed to him he tweeted "Jesus" and nothing after that. When Miriam O'Callaghan tweeted "Tragically it is true. So terribly shocking and sad. Life is just too cruel sometimes. RIP" it was the first word from an RTE source that confirmed what many people were speculating about unofficially. The message was retweeted widely. O'Callaghan later removed the message, although TV3 broadcast it on its 5.30pm bulletin along with a tweet from Ian Dempsey, "Gerry Ryan RIP – shocking news just breaking – a big loss to radio and Ireland."
Newstalk was the first radio station to report it, releasing the news during Seán Moncrieff's programme. Moncrieff's thought process was also on Twitter. "The Gerry Ryan report is still just a rumour – could be utter bullshit," he tweeted when the first buzz of information began to rise in volume online. "RTE waiting until 5pm; not sure why," he then tweeted, before tweeting later, "generally, cops only confirm identity of deceased until after family contacted – cops confirmed to media. RTE wanted everyone else to wait til 5 – then reported it at 3.30."
There is still a reluctance to take information online as fact unless it's from an online version of an already trusted media source – the RTE website, the Irish Times website and so on. There's a good reason for that reluctance: no matter how wrong traditional media can sometimes get it, there is more adherence to the rules of confirmation offline than there is online. In the same way that you mightn't quite believe a piece of information shouted at you by a punter on the street, there is a reluctance to take every tweet as gospel. When a journalist restrained by the constraints that dictate the spread of information in their day job becomes that punter online, it's easy for others to get confused.
Some journalists questioned the validity of even talking about the spread of information. As Conor Pope from the Irish Times tweeted, "Shocked and saddened to learn of Gerry Ryan's death. Reckon the debate about who, when and how story broke could be left for another time." But there's also good reasons for paying attention to online sources. People frequently scoop journalists these days, thanks to services like Twitter.
Reporting breaking news in a traditional media sense becomes almost meaningless when the facts of a story can be someone's Facebook status update moments after something happens. Because of this alteration in the democracy and velocity of information, old media is reacting too. The time between something happening and something being reported is narrowing.
It was clear RTE was waiting until it was appropriate to report the news. In the past, that would have been enough to ensure other media organisations would not report it either. But it's not like that now. Radio stations really had no option but to report Ryan's death. If the news is all over Twitter then the listener will become frustrated as to why it's not being officially reported. Then the new medium gains credence over the old. Aside from chatter between police, family, colleagues and in newsrooms, Twitter was there first.
RTE wasn't impressed. Clare Duignan, the managing director of radio in RTE, spoke on Drivetime about it on Friday evening, when the state broadcaster eventually discussed the death of one of its biggest names. "We just won't be driven to put material out there," Duignan said, "I think it's unfortunate other media didn't show the same respect."
Other broadcasters clearly believed that RTE did not have a monopoly on this story and went for it. How could they not, when the information was already out there? The online broadcasting of information continued when Dublin radio station 98FM uploaded a video to YouTube of the ambulance removing Ryan's body from his apartment.
By Friday night, after a bombardment of information that afternoon, the reflection had already started with a moving and tasteful tribute on the Late Late Show, where Ryan Tubridy, Pat Kenny, Gay Byrne, Dave Fanning, Brenda Donohue and Joe Duffy shared their thoughts and memories. Fiona Looney filled in for her friend on Friday morning after Ryan rang his producer on Thursday night saying he wasn't well enough to do the show. At noon on Saturday, she tweeted, "Thanks again for all the support and love. Can't tell you how much I'm going to miss him."
Perhaps the scramble for information and the race to be the first is testimony to how omnipresent Gerry Ryan was. The style of his delivery and his trademark prurience made him easy to parody but easier to recognise. Controversial, opinionated, loud-mouthed, entertaining, droll and, as Joe Duffy said, "bold", Ryan's career in broadcasting crossed generations.
Maybe it's fitting, considering the diversity of his audience, that all forms of media got caught up in the 'story' of his passing. As for everyone scrapping over it? He probably would have got a good laugh out of that.
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