What I Learned From Maya Angelou’s Mark Twain Media Moment

mayaMay 28, 2014 Update Sadly, this time it is true. Dr. Maya Angelou has died at age 86.

Original Post: Oct. 4 2009 “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” is a Mark Twain classic, which this Google research feed shows gets its own share of media morphs and revisions to suit the occasion.

The hodgepodge of misinformation on that quote alone exemplifies and keenly illustrates the real time drama of the false hospitalization alert of Maya Angelou this past weekend.

No fool to rumors or Truemors, I admit I was rattled with ‘Say what?’ alarm since I’m a fan of her calm and triumphant presence and am slated to see this inspirational 81-year old icon on Oct. 17 at the 2009 Women’s Health Conference.

Maya Angelou’s keynoting the event, “Feeling good in tough times,” which is part of an intimate/interactive morning workshop for all ages and stages of sisterhood; can’t wait.

Since I’m new to Twitter, I thought I’d check out the way media catches on fire, and observe the real time commentary using the “Maya Angelou hashtag” approach, which groups topics into ‘trending’ tweets marking sheer volume of discourse. (I’d already heard via the LATimes that the Maya account on Twitter is a phony) My most disturbing ‘hashtag’ takeaway? Largely unsubstantiated comments without links to credible sources.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving my new Twitter experience, I gobble up data like a Little Shop of Horrors plant, “feed me!” but media analysis and critical thinking skills have GOT to come into play.

angelouIt was the first time I visited a ‘trending topic’ on the Twitter sidebar (I could usually care less, frankly) and like a bad accident scene, I couldn’t quite look away, mesmerized by the real time media maelstrom of thousands of tweets at varying degrees of panic and prose, ranging from concern and well wishing to irresponsible ‘RIP’ sentiments without ANY sourcing or links, like a poor game of childrens’ telephone tag in devolved communication.

I was disheartened by the lousy language (RIP William Safire, who’d be aghast) the vapid values (using Maya Angelou as a marketing opportunity to capitalize on the ‘trending’ traffic, ugh) and the ignorance of some (“who is Maya Angelou?”) Sigh.

Needless to say, I was concerned but didn’t want to ‘bite’ sans multiple corroborations so carefully worded a ‘tweet’ maxing out my 140 characters:

“Rumor: Maya Angelou in the hospital? Anyone confirm? I’m slated to attend her talk on 10-17 at the Women’s Health Conference, worried 4her!”

I sent it into the Twittersphere and Facebook hoping to flesh out some reality, (sorry, folks, TMZ.com gossip does not qualify as same for me).

I started deep diving into some of my usual sources like Pew Research’s PEJ site, reference tools at U of Iowa, and my favorite portal hub, Journalist Express to get away from what I call the ‘shock schlock’ dynamic of media hype and get a snapshot of ‘the whole story.’

I almost felt like a ‘Maya media stalker’ checking out a plethora of global news feeds, tracing Reuters, CNN International, her hometown St. Louis media whereabouts and checking sites like Guy Kawasaki’s ‘Truemors’ (acquired as crowd-powered media NowPublic)

maya blunderPing!

The chime hit my inbox with an official looking NBC peacock, with a crowdsourced blogpoll flair (note the numbers and differentiation between the two articles!)

The original article claimed she’d been hospitalized for ‘unknown causes.’ (it’s been removed and UPDATED as false, but these are screenshots of it)

I happened to be on the phone with my own “personal Maya Angelou” (my mom, a former journalist herself, at age 80 my guiding light for humor, spunk, and all things good) and I stammered somewhat incoherently seeing the NBC link:

“Whoa, mom, this Maya Angelou thing might be true.”

She replied, “You sound flustered, you wanna check it out?”

“Well, I just thought it was Twitter-panic or trivia…but now…seeing THIS…I dunno…”

“It’s not out of the realm of consciousness, she IS 81, you’ve gotta prepare yourself for stuff like this; we’re not immortal, including me. You’re always telling me about blog stuff that hasn’t hit the mainstream yet, so go ahead and see. The whole Twitter thing might be valid.”

”Yah, I guess…I just feel…overwhelmed. All this information and sifting and sorting what’s real anymore…”

maya blunder2Compare the two visuals. the stats. The recant.

As we all know by now, it was a ‘false alarm’ like so many social media ebbs and flows and moral panics and siren calls that make me want to unplug, retreat to my hammock in Roatan and do the best I can on the planet without the stress inducing ‘always on’ information and distribution of 24/7 streams.

Are 86% sad that journalism has devolved?

Are only 3% ‘thrilled’ that the news is false?

You see where I’m going here? It’s the whole ‘lying with statistics’ polling pool redux…Absent context, it’s media skewed information yet again.

Critical thinking skills, kiddies. Interpretation of information. Data relevance in context. Source/sampling size. All those familiar bugaboos.

So where did the NBC Bay Area story get substantiated?

Reuters reveals the erroneous report was blamed on “event organizers, saying that someone had told one of its cameramen that Angelou was a no-show because she had been hospitalized.”

Really, NBC?

Mainstream will now ‘run with it’ with third hand info, a hunch, and an errant cameraman comment? wow.

I’d expect this of TMZ but not NBC..

This is actually a great teaching moment for us all…

Here’s a screenshot of the text of the inaccurate article that I took for analysis (since then, the article has been removed/updated with this one)

Look closely at the timestamp…The credits and use of past-tense verbiage…The emphatic and official sounding ‘statements’ vs. inquiry. The authoritative tonality…and the bio/backgrounder for context. (almost reads like an epitaph)


I’m not here to skewer NBC (well, maybe a tad) or social media/Twitter mavens for seeing mainstream icons as reflective of credibility and rumormill confirmation.

I’m saying that the biggest cause for ALARM here is sloppy journalism across the board.

That’s how propaganda and misinformation ignites and fuels fires far too fast in this nanosecond media-driven “Age of Conversation.” (We’re about to do a ‘threepeat’ on our probono global blogger AOC book, stay tuned!)

Critical thinking skills have NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT in the rapidfire feeds of the digital age, and I believe media literacy should be funded as part of mandatory schooling beginning at very early childhood.

I’ve learned a lot about MYSELF through this media-mishap both “inter and intra”-personal as well…

I learned:

1.) …As much as I feel new media is leading innovation, participatory dialog, and community building, it was disarming to see self-evidence that the river runs deep in terms of giving a subconscious level of credibility to ‘mainstream media’ even though times have changed that no longer necessarily warrant that leadership stance.

2.) …Seeing those great big broadcast call letters ‘NBC’ and the ‘peacock fan’ triggered a perception of ” fact checking and sourcing” from my journalism days that no longer merits such a pedestal. If anything it’s more like a footstool…

3.) …Following a ‘hashtag’ watching realtime developments of a story can be as disheartening as it is uplifting.

On one hand it’s exciting to see new media citizen journalism take hold in some spheres, on the other hand ‘the masses don’t know squat’ comes to mind when observed in unedited free flowing blather.

trustagents4.) …The Trust Agent concept of social media thought leader Chris Brogan is clearly essential for sifting through the clutter and discerning influencers and words that matter. (Now if I could only learn how to ‘filter and funnel’ my core ‘trust agents’ into a short sheet feed of reliability…’Is there an app for that?’)

5.) …With influence comes responsibility; and this has nothing to do with web analytics, numbers of Twitter followers or quantity, but instead, quality.

6.) …That Twitter can be a ‘frenemie’ if you get too close, too ‘addicted’ to information or too sucked into the vortex of any emotional mass media movement; circumspect logic is your BFF.

7.) …That my innate critical thinking skills are fully intact but that my ‘prepare for the worst’ heartshield now deploys on autopilot.

8.) …That living legends, human expectations, and the passage of time have translated into my soul as “80 is the new 60”…whether it’s Maya Angelou, Doug Engelbart, or my mom!

And finally…

9.) … I’ve learned that my anticipation and desire to hear and see Maya Angelou Oct. 17th is indicative of humanity’s everpresent need for ‘face to face’ tactile ‘in the flesh’ time despite the virtual advancements in this thriving digital world!

“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told:  “I’m with you kid. Let’s go.” —Maya Angelou

Related Resources

NAMLE.net: National Assoc. of Media Literacy Education

2009 NAMLE Conf: Critical Connections in a Digital World

Media Awareness Network: Handy chart by Chris Worsnop following each question with the core, “How do I know?” Excellent Conceptual Framework for Media Education

Questions to Ask About Media Messages: Includes partial curricula from KNOW TV compiled on media literacy pal Frank Baker’s Media Literacy Clearinghouse site always on our sidebar

Mark Twain quote/Google Answers: Great ‘train of thought’ research thread on determining accuracy of information and how to source the real deal

Web English Teacher: Fun find for kids (tangentially related!) Maya Angelou Lesson Plans & Resources



  1. It’s been interesting to watch this Twitter phenomenon, from the odd duck hardly anyone had heard of, to this ubiquitous and potentially dangerous collective. This is a great list of cautions, but I especially appreciate confirmation that despite the amazing virtual connections, there is no substitute for real human contact.
    .-= Sandra Foyt´s last blog ..Revelry at the Medieval Festival In New York =-.

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