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by Bill Rundle No comments

Death of a Legend

When one of music's greatest maestros, Michael Jackson, died on Thursday 25 June, just like the rest of the world I stood still, then scrambled to absorb as much information as possible, almost bringing the Internet to a halt.

Celebrity gossip site TMZ broke the news which spread like wildfire around the globe with people forwarding links, tweeting and updating Facebook statuses. Loading news sites to get more information became impossibly slow, with Google News experiencing difficulties and "Twitter straining under the weight of tributes to the star". CNN.com reported 20 million page views and a five fold increase in traffic within one hour. It was a worldwide phenomenon - similar sentiments being echoed around the world, heard at the same time, everywhere.

So how was this different to news reporting of previous celebrity deaths?

Princess Diana's death in August 1997 had a similar impact on the world's heartstrings but was reported in a very different way. Back then the Internet played only a small part of everyday life, unlike today where it consumes huge chunks of work and social life. I know I'm lost without it!

Initial reports of Princess Di's death were spread by word-of-mouth through friends and family. The BBC filtered the news down via local news organisations, with updates coming through slowly. She made the front page of almost every newspaper and magazine around the globe all week, and remained the focus of media attention for more than a year. Her anniversary was marked by another round of front page headlines and covers, and her death remains the most followed celebrity death to date.

Twelve years on, the way news is carried is a whole lot different. The scale and speed at which the news of Michael Jackson's death travelled, and the use of social networking sites to disseminate this information was unique. In less than two hours 4,000 news stories of Michael Jackson's death were reported on Google. Yet a lot of people found out about it via social networking sites.

According to the Twitter tracking tool Twist, more than 30% of tweets were talking about MJ's death soon after it was confirmed (source). According to Robert Niles from the Online Journalism review website "Twitter became the forum for a global event, as millions gathered on the micro blogging site to share rumours about, then to confirm, then to mourn Jackson's death."

Why did the world and the media go crazy over MJ's death? Farrah Fawcett, who died the same day, hardly registered on the radar by comparison.

Well, as the King of Pop he was a mega-star, the third biggest selling music artist of all time (after the Beatles and Elvis), he changed the face of music videos (in a word, Thriller, which was also the biggest selling album of all time), inspired dancers, musicians and fashionistas the world around, and enthralled celebrity watchers with his ever changing appearance and bizarre exploits.

A lot of websites and blogs have asked the question "Did the media take coverage of Michael Jackson's Death too far?". Answers vary from "yes it was ridiculous" to "no, this man is an icon". Most of these polls show a greater weighting for yes, it has gone too far, but most have the sentiment of "just let the man rest in peace now".

All I know is that MJ was a legend whose music touched a lot of people around the world and will continue to do so for many years to come. Much like September 11 and Princess Diana's death, everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news. I do wonder though if Madonna will gain the same intensity of coverage as the Queen of Pop when she sings her last song. Or even the Queen herself? That remains to be seen, and may depend on what new and wonderful technology or media tools are available in the future.


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