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.
This whole tweet rubbish sickens me,could these people,who incidentally should have known better,not for one minute have considered Gerrys family and if they had all been informed at that stage?...no chance,just could not wait to be the first with the bad news,frankly they turn my stomach.
I'm not saying I'm for or against anything that happened etc. but I just wanted to ask/say how the people who post things on Twitter are to know whether the family has been informed or not? How do they know when is or isn't the right time to say anything?
I think it might have been nice of Una to include a disclosure that Miriam's tweet was an @ reply to Una herself on Twitter and not merely something directed out into the ether.
That aside, I think it's worth pointing out that most people sharing the news on Twitter probably assumed that the news could only have gotten out after Gerry's family had been informed. It certainly crossed my mind when the news started doing the rounds, but why would anyone assume his family hadn't been the very first to know? A celebrity death is going to get around quickly so of course his family were going to be told first. I fear that anyone who argues otherwise (and I use the word 'argue' literally) doesn't understand the medium of the message.
Its unfair and frankly complete nonsense to single out a journalist for using twitter like this. Of course its difficult for the family but the sudden death of a well known personality would be hard to keep quiet. Gossip spreads and these days its impossible to stop. From what I heard, G. Ryan called in sick before his radio show and no-one could contact him for 2 hours before the Garda finally broke in.
Are we supposed to believe that nobody, anywhere said anything, that a group of journalists decided NOT to do anything with this news, except for one rogue tweeter?
Rubbish, that news was out and newspapers are not the only media out there
Twitter is just short comments, bits of news and gossip. 140 characters long and most of it hearsay, stories are constantly flying around, some accurate, some not. Criticising a journalist for tweeting a News Story is ridiculous and bordering on hypocrisy.
And while on the subject, its a shame RTE producers, so aggrieved on Friday, didnt see fit to live up to their elevated sense of rightousness. But it seemed that the familys feelings only mattered in between news broadcasts and were forgotten by 9.30 Friday night.
That exploitative, manipulative, poorly judged and cringe worthy 'Late Late' was one of the worst things I have ever seen. No thought was given to family or colleagues there as they rushed out a shameless 'tribute', hours after the man was found dead.
Im surprised Una Mullany and the Tribune have raised this as an issue. I could go on about double standards etc. but in reality, isnt this what you people do for a living?
I guess "Twitter" is now the chatterer of the present & future & unlike Sean above, I don't think its a bad thing. For it helps those under horrible dictatorship's to get their horrific stories out to the world when they can't get it beyond the propaganda machine of their same governments i.e. Iran, Burma,China, etc.
Yes, it can seem horrible storie's concerning someone's death who's well known can become the story before they're meant to, but that is as how this village of a world operates today. Rte, BBC, CNN, or any other broadcasting concern can't do any thing about same, because say if God forbid a mega-star was to die suddenly & I have one in mind whom I won't mention, but that would be another Michael Jackson event, do you think Rte, wouldn't spill it, if they were the first to know? News, is a "Dog, eat Dog, world these present times & everyone hunting a good story is doing so to get that exclusive at the expense of being second or third, as the Tribune's Una above says...being first is the prize. God forbid, if WW3 were to break out in the morning you'll get to hear it first by someone tweeting...that won't mean you'll feel any better, but the story will out no matter what.
I wasn't really a fan of Gerry Ryan's myself, but will as one human being to another now deceased...hope & say a prayer that he rests in peace.
Whilst I agree with most of your article, its disingenous to omit the fact that Miriam O'Callaghans tweet was a response to yours. Did this slip your mind?
I have to agree with Sean here. It was too "big" a story to consider his young children? I have known for some time that many journalists in Ireland are just the lowest of the low ! RIP Gerry and hope your family & friends are given some peace and space too.Unfortunately I doubt it as they are vultures out there.
A Weckler has nothing to apologise for - people who make a living in the public eye accept the advantages and disadvantages of the public stage, as they should. A Weckler should be applauded for showing traditional broadcasters that they are not the only source of information in 21st Century Ireland.
The tweet thing is gossip on steroids, but its something that is now the norm. Is it less offensive that wondering 'who was going to get the scoop? '. At lest those that tweeted had no commercial incentive in mind.
Agree with dervla @7 - you were tweeting Miriam about the news, why exclude yourself from the analysis you seem to subject rival journalists to?
New definition for "Gerrymandering": The redrawing of ethical and professional borders by journalists unable to admit mistakes.
As far as I can see Weckler and O'Callaghan use their Twitter sites with endorsement of their employers and also link to their employers domain names, so their tweets constitute work. So lodging complaints with the Sunday Business Post and RTE seem reasonable.
The issue is simple. RTE is the national news organisation. RTE was Gerry Ryan's employer. It was unquestionably national news that Gerry Ryan had passed away. As his employer, there was an onus on RTE to ensure that Gerry's family were comfortable as to when the announcement was made on RTE. It's called basic human decency. Not surprisingly, a number of journalists (including Una Mullally) started tweeting the rumours prior to actual confirmation from the Ryan family/RTE. These were merely rumours until Miriam O'Callaghan confirmed Gerry's death. She was the first person in authority to confirm the news. It was the re-tweeting of O'Callaghan's confirmation that carried the news to thousands within seconds- a full hour before her employer, RTE, confirmed.
The question (media) companies have to ask is to what extent do the individual tweets of their employees reflect their news or corporate values? More so for RTE, the public service broadcaster that is paid for in large part by the taxpayer.
R.I.P. Gerry Ryan.
GUYS: Broadcaster GERRY RYAN was an INSTIGATOR of INDEPENDENT RADIO in IRELAND back in the 70's...his enthusiasm, his personality simply flowed through the Dublin Airwaves...to us RADIO PEOPLE that is one of his GREAT LEGACIES. In 1976, a few of us went to Holland to study the great pirate radio scene there and we went to see RORY GALLAGHER in concert an all-time favourite of GERRY'S. Rory Gallagher complained to us that he could only listen to LUXEMBOURG 208 and there was no pop radio in Ireland. But, by the Summer of '76, enthuiastic teenagers including GERRY RYAN were On-AIR. Good on you GERRY!
PS: Faith healer Dr. DON (MOORE) now living in SPAIN was the man who kick-started Gerry Ryan’s radio career and on Sunday last he signed the BOOK OF CONDOLENCES in RTE by proxy, through ALAN HUNTER, a former independent radio operator from the Mid-70's.
Speaking to 2fm in MONTROSE on sunday afternoon ALAN tried to express the misery felt by Dr. Don and his wife DJ DEBBIE, who began ARD with GERRY RYAN on board and Ad-Mad schoolboy Alan (Hunter) scouring the town for revenue! ADVERTISERTS often had no money and gave us FOOD...very often GERRY literally sang for his Supper; Alan said.
The memories are OVERWHELMING and the PAIN is killing us. It’s another chapter closed in the HISTORY OF BROADCASTING...
This debate could continue forever as to right and wrong but the real fact here is that if twitter didnt exist it would be facebook, if not facebook then bebo. If not that then something else, Emails flying around.
Once information goes out, it is impossible to bring it back. As a blog we waited until a host of media outlets had confirmed it (twitter/websites) before posting it. I was not going to post it based on a rumour and i wouldnt discuss it on twitter until it was fact.
However in the new age media, there is little to stop the flow of news out into the world. Journalists need to now decide how they are going to handle these situations in the future
Speaking of Twitters, how did Mark Little get the G Ryan funeral gig on RTE when he's on leave?
Are we missing the point here about social media. This is the internet, it's unregulated and information of all sorts gets out there really quickly. It could have been tweeted for an hour and have been a hoax (how would the family have felt then!!), in this case it was true. So why does trad media feel like it should be the 'first' to report this.
What will be the next suggestion; journalists hand in your twitter accounts etc. at the door before working here!
Strikes me as journo snobbery to berate the journos that tweeted about it, yet hundreds of non-journo posts on irishboards.ie & twitter are OK (as they are just from irrelevant civilians).
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The question remains were Weckler and Co tweeting in their capacity as journalists or just people with nothing else to do? Is there a defining line between the two notions anyway? If Weckler can be held responsible as a journalist in an official capacity, then it's time to get onto the BAI about him. If it's OK to complain about how TV3 announced Brian Lenihan's illness, then we should be allowed complain about this too. Same about O'Callaghan by the way.
It seems that the media, RTE, Sunday Business Post, and Sunday Tribune are happy to see their employees and contractors operate to their advantage through social media without issuing a code of practice. Where are the NUJ on this?