By Richard Lee
When John Lennon was murdered 40 years ago, news of his death was delivered in a format that was unconventional for the time.
Instead of a network newscast or a daily newspaper, it was sportscaster Howard Cosell who broke the news to the American public during the fourth quarter of a Monday Night Football game.
ABC had the story first because a news producer from the network’s New York City affiliate had been injured in a motorcycle accident on the evening of Lennon’s murder, and he was in the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital waiting to be treated when the former Beatle was wheeled in.
On the 40th anniversary of his death, Lennon will be remembered for his music and his message of peace, but the way his murder was announced also is significant. It foreshadowed the manner in which news and information flows today.
Journalists still are the primary sources for news, but they no longer are the only sources. Today, anyone with a mobile phone can shoot a video that goes viral and sparks reactions, leaving the media to focus on what the industry refers to as second-day stories.
As a journalism professor and a longtime journalist, I often am asked why there is so much opinion in today’s news. My initial response is to suggest paying more attention to labels. Columns and op-ed articles are not news; they are opinion. Talking heads on cable television are analysts.
Then I explain how the internet and social media have radically altered manner in which we receive news and information. We no longer wait for the 11 p.m. news or the morning newspaper to learn who won a baseball game. That information is at our fingertips, and it is available in real time. We watch the news and post-game reports to dissect decisions the manager made, and we read the morning newspaper (albeit online today) to learn how the starting pitcher feels about being pulled from the game early.
To use a musical analogy, think about “A Day in the Life” from the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The song begins with Lennon singing “I read the news today,” and the lyrics tell listeners that the news included a report of a fatal accident involving a well-known man.
In today’s media landscape, Lennon might not have learned about the accident by reading a newspaper. Instead, the news may have come from a Facebook or Twitter post, or a video, from someone in the crowd of people who “stood and stared” at the crash.
Forty years ago, news of Lennon’s death followed a similar path. It came to the public not from a reporter or TV anchor, but from a sports announcer — all because a television producer saw Lennon being wheeled into the ER.