Discover more from The Present Age
What We Can Learn From the Lil Tay Media Faceplant
Social media has warped journalism's incentive system. Accuracy, not speed, needs to once again become the priority for news outlets.
Hello, readers. Happy Friday. Let’s talk about journalism.
On Wednesday, news broke that a younginternet personality named Lil Tay had died. News outlets rushed to publish stories and post on social media with headlines like, “Lil Tay, rapper and social media star, dies at 14” (ABC News) and “Lil Tay, Teen Internet Rapper, Has Died” (Variety).
There was just one problem with this: Lil Tay was (and remains) very much alive.
It seems that in the rush to get some of those sweet, sweet clicks (and on
The following day, TMZ reported that Lil Tay was not dead and claimed that her Instagram account had been hacked.
The Present Age is 100% reader-supported. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This story is not actually about Lil Tay. This is a story about the state of journalism (it’s not great).
I hadn’t ever heard of Lil Tay before Wednesday, and honestly, I still don’t know anything about her. That’s okay, though, because this isn’t about her at all. I’m more interested in the failures of the press. So let’s talk about that.
A lot of what gets called “citizen journalism” these days is aggregation. There’s nothing wrong with aggregation, but it’s not the same thing as reporting. There’s much less overhead with this type of curation, as you don’t have to actually have people doing the real work of reporting stories (interviewing people, fact-checking, sifting through to see if there even is a story to be told). There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, either, if it’s done well. A lot of commentary (like what I do here at TPA) is built on curation.
One of the problems with the attention economy is that it prioritizes speed over accuracy, and that’s exactly what we saw happen here. Dextero’s tweet announcing Lil Tay’s “death” racked up an astounding 20 million impressions. Just a single tweet. And it’s still up. Meanwhile, actual news outlets are faced with difficult decisions about whether to weigh in before they have confidence in what they’re reporting (see: ABC News, Variety, etc.), or to put time and effort into confirming the story before going live with it, potentially missing out on the window where the story is trending on social media entirely.
On the one hand, when a celebrity’s social media account publishes a statement from the celebrity’s family announcing their death, there’s usually little reason to doubt it. I’ve seen countless big-name deaths announced by families or loved ones on social media. On the other hand, you simply can’t trust everything you read on the internet without further confirmation, and the press needs to do better.
Not every news outlet took the bait, and they should be commended for that.
NBC News’s Angela Yang summed up the present moment in culture and journalism:
Then, this week, she supposedly died. Twenty-four hours later, she was alive.
The confusion between those two days — a story that could really rapidly develop only during this moment in internet history — engulfed the news and social media spheres in a saga that was just as bizarre and conspiracy-laden as Lil Tay’s first viral videos were.
Major media outlets published, and then walked back, stories about the teenager’s death. (Her exact age is unclear, as reports have varied over the years.) But longtime followers, knowing her online persona, were wary from the get-go.
Posting to X, BBC journalist Daniel Rosney published a helpful thread about the steps he took to try to confirm the story after being assigned to it. I think it’s an instructive look at how journalism is supposed to be done, even if it’s at odds with the current incentives of the moment. You can check out the thread here, but I’ve pasted it in full below:
Just a quick note on how BBC News verifies deaths in order to report them Yesterday I was assigned the death of online star Lil Tay. A statement on her Instagram page said she, along with her brother, had died. I contacted her management to double check it was true.
Her management did not reply. There were alarm bells ringing for me because the social media page had been inactive for five years. I also contacted multiple police forces, both in the US and in Canada, where Lil Tay had links with. No police were aware of the deaths.
I did this via email as well as on the phone. There were a lot of questions and, from 10+ years of experience, press officers often give more information on background when it’s not in writing. But there was no information on background. No police force was aware of any incident.
Meanwhile it seemed a lot of publications were either reporting Lil Tay was dead at 14. Or they had articles explaining “the mystery” surrounding it. I continued speaking with police forces to try and piece together something. Everyone I spoke to was very helpful and professional.
But there was nothing. I couldn’t confirm Lil Tay and her brother had died, and so BBC News couldn’t report it. Late last night it transpired - via TMZ - it wasn’t true and the Instagram account had been compromised in some way.
Around the same I received a reply from Lil Tay’s management. The Instagram statement announcing the death was also deleted.
I guess this is just a thread to explain the 10+ hours of journalism that sometimes goes on that readers, listeners, and viewers don’t always get to see. It’s also just a reminder that just because it’s online - and even on a verified Instagram account - it isn’t always true.
Journalists have a responsibility to get this right, even if that means taking a few extra hours to do so.
If outlets must weigh in on something they've yet to independently confirm, they have an ethical obligation to make it clear that they haven’t been able to verify the story. This needs to be front and center in any story, in the headline, in the tweet, etc.
And news outlets that run stories they can’t independently confirm should be treated with suspicion. Audiences deserve better, and there’s a real responsibility to prioritize accuracy over speed, even if it hurts the bottom line.
That’s it for me today. As always, thanks for reading. I’ll be back next week.