Willis v Apple is a myth, but media jumps on iTunes 'issue'

Sep 5, 2012

Journalists fall for fact-free tale as Sunday Times piece goes viral

Alberto Pizzoli

EARLIER this week the media latched on to the story of how Hollywood actor Bruce Willis was preparing to take on the might of Apple over the fate of his iTunes collection, which he hoped to leave to his children.

The tale ticked all the boxes. It had a recognisable lead character in Willis and an interesting issue at its heart: who owns our digital data? The only problem was that the story, carried in The Sunday Times, had absolutely no sources or verification.

However, the story was quickly spotted and lifted by other publications including the Sun and the Daily Mail. From there it began to spread rapidly across the internet with few journalists bothering to ask questions about the story's provenance.

Some, though, were sceptical about the tale. BBC technology reporter Dave Lee was one of the first to smell a rat. On Monday he tweeted: "Bruce Willis v Apple story is flakier than a Twirl. Has ANYONE actually got a source? Even Sunday Times piece doesn't specify one."

However, by now the story had legs and was being picked up left right and centre, and was even making waves on the other side of the Atlantic.

Even The Guardian appeared confused about what to do. On Monday morning its website carried a story under the headline "Bruce Willis to fight Apple over right to leave iTunes library in will".

But just over 12 hours later on Monday night a blog by technology writer Charles Arthur appeared on the site announcing: "No, Bruce Willis isn't suing Apple over iTunes rights".

It dissected the original Sunday Times piece and pointed out that it lacked any form of verification. "Still, without any actual quotes from Willis or his agents, lawyers, etc, nobody would follow this up and just write a story, would they? Without any sources?" asked Arthur.

Only when proof that the story was not true arrived in the form of a tweet from Willis's wife, Emma Heming-Willis, did the story start to lose its initial impetus. When asked about the articles she responded: "It's not a true story."

However, the media was not deterred. As some publications revelled in the mistakes of their rivals, others earnestly pointed out that the issue of digital rights was a valid one to investigate and began to do so.

Writing in the London Evening Standard today, historian Dan Jones announced: "The truth of this case is neither here nor there. The issues it raises are important.

"Willis may or may not be suing Apple to clarify ownership of his data today. But you can bet that in decades to come there will be plenty of people like him who will be doing exactly that."

The tale also has an interesting moral for online newspapers that do not give credit to their sources, after the Daily Mail ended up embarrassed in more ways than one.

The tabloid was one of the first publications to pick up the 'story' but neglected to inform its readers that it was a straight lift from another paper. That meant that as the story began to circulate many other publications credited the Mail as the original source.

This of course reflected badly on the Mail, but when it emerged that the story was made up, the paper reacted in somewhat underhand fashion by simply going back to its original article and crediting the Sunday Times with the error and adding a helpful link.

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