The Stephen Collins "shot" heard round the world

A media frenzy over a false news report shows the perils of trusting Twitter

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 8, 2014 2:37PM (EDT)

Stephen Collins         (AP/Matt Sayles)
Stephen Collins (AP/Matt Sayles)

It seemed a lurid end to an already upsetting story. Early on Tuesday, TMZ had reported that "Seventh Heaven" TV dad Stephen Collins had, in an audio the site obtained, confessed to sexually abusing at least three underage girls over the span of several years. By that night, reports were surfacing that shots were fired in the actors home, and there had been a possible suicide. But there hadn't and there wasn't.

The frenzy began Tuesday evening, with police responding to what's been described as a "loud noise" coming from the actor's Tarzana home. Soon after, former "Baywatch" actress Donna D'Errico tweeted out that "That guy from 7th Heaven lives right around the corner from me & just shot himself a few minutes ago…" She also tweeted a photograph of several police vehicles near the scene. Former Reuters social media editor Matthew Keys quickly tweeted that "LAPD source did not have knowledge of Stephen Collins' condition, but confirmed actor shot himself earlier tonight." Bonnie Fuller's Hollywood Life, meanwhile, hedged its bets by coyly noting "Suicide Fears As Police Respond To Gunshot Report."

When it soon became apparent that not only was the actor not dead, not shot, not even home but elsewhere and "alive and well," the abrupt do-over began. That's the glory of the Internet – you can you make like the mistakes weren't yours. Donna D'Errico deleted her tweet, issuing an apology but with the caveat that "I just tweeted out what I was being told by my neighbor who were on scene." Matthew Keys deleted his mistaken tweets "pending further sources" but joked that "Somewhere a TMZ producer just had a coronary." On early Wednesday morning, I read of Collins' alleged suicide on a robust news and gossip site. By breakfast time, the story had been quietly removed – no update, no correction, just a quick disappearance. And while Buzzfeed's Jon Passantino reported that the LAPD's "Lt. Davis says ABC7 news crew in front of Collins' home thought they heard loud noise coming from residence. Officers responded, found nada," ABC7 lobbed back that "ABC7 news crew was not in front of the residence at the time, did not report a loud noise to anyone." In other words: It was the neighbors. It was the other reporters. Wasn't us, guys. And suddenly, the story about the gunshots becomes the story about somebody else's false alarm.

The reality is that news now unfolds in real time. If there's a swarm of police at the home of a high-profile person who's been accused of sexually abusing children, that's going to get out via social media and that's unavoidable. But from the sounds of things, the whole "loud noise" appears to have been a whopping mistake, one exacerbated in the eagerness to tell the story first. That's irresponsible journalism and a big waste of police time and energy. So kudos to reporters like Fox 11's Gigi Graciette, who said Tuesday night, "Phone blowing up with texts about reported shooting in Tarzana and speculation it's an actor. Hold on everyone...hold on.... Stop tweeting things that haven't been confirmed!" That's how to be honest and responsible and not escalate a media circus. Just hold on, and consider that the tweeting neighbor may not have the whole story.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Sexual Abuse Stephen Collins Tmz Twitter