On lazy journalism

Dom Habersack
Dom HabersackJuly 27, 2012

A few weeks ago Alan McCandlish, a Kiwi and former colleague of mine, died basejumping in Switzerland. Many friends paid tribute to him on social media, most of them via Facebook. I, on the other hand, took a slightly more “public” approach and sent out a tweet:

Although I did not know Alan very well, we did work together for a few months back in 2010. He was one of the first people I met in the world of skydiving, even before I took up the sport myself. His death hit close to home, and that tweet felt like an okay way to say goodbye. Nothing more, nothing less.

Shortly after the news of his death, news outlets in New Zealand started running the story of his accident. While reading the first article I came across, my heart suddenly stopped. My tweet was quoted and I mentioned by name:

He was found dead at the scene, police said. A German friend, Dom Habersack, paid tribute to Mr McCandlish on Twitter. ‘The skydiving world hast lost a legend. Watch over us, Alan McCandlish. I am glad to have known you.’ The adrenalin junkie had been touring Europe’s base jumping hot-spots…
NZ Herald

My initial confusion quickly turned into anger after realising that there would have been countless other messages that should have been mentioned instead, some of them nearly bringing me to tears. How come I am the one being quoted here?

The answer is so simple it is maddening. At the time, a search on Twitter for “Alan McCandlish” yielded one single result: my tweet. Apparently, this seemed good enough for some lazy journalist to quickly be done with his research. Searched Twitter? Check, moving on.

I was not contacted about being quoted, neither before nor after the fact. Had someone actually gone through the effort of sending a tweet to ask permission, this would not have happened. Because it should not have.

To add insult to injury, someone from Radio NZ sent me an email not long after my tweet started appearing on “news articles” (42 at the time of this writing), inquiring whether I would be interested in giving a phone interview about Alan. To be broadcast all over New Zealand. No thank you, I am far from the right person to talk to here.

After declining, the reporter then continued to ask whether I knew when Alan started working for Taupo Tandem Skydiving, the company we used to work at together. Since finding this information takes exactly three clicks on the company’s website, I did not bother replying. You call yourself a journalist, go do your job and do not ask me to do it for you. This information is not a secret.

Social media is an easy way to do research. Too easy, it seems, as nobody ever bothered asking about the actual connection between Alan and me, which would have prevented my unqualified tweet from showing up all over those websites. I do understand that those journalists were looking for something to quote, probably anything really, just to be able to say “we are up to date, we were on Twitter”. They could not have known that what they found was not appropriate to quote, but the answer to that unasked question would have been just a single tweet away. If this seems like too much effort, fine, just do not quote me then. And stop calling yourself a journalist.

In most other cases, this probably would not have been an issue. But somebody died here. Alan was loved and will be missed by many, so do him the honor of remembering him respectfully. The story of a death should be more than a simple statement of facts, throw some compassion in there. Too bad fact-checking seems to have become a forgotten art. Now what seems to matter most is getting the story out there as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences.

All these events are rather unfortunate and leave me with regret. I am sorry to have been the one quoted on the life of a man I did not know nearly as well as I would have liked. I am sorry that it was not one of his closer friends whose voice was heard. They are the ones that are actually hurting, because they lost a friend. I lost someone I used to work with.

Mine was not as good a voice as you would have deserved. I am sorry, Alan.