What can journalists learn from Sam Smith’s Oscar acceptance speech?

Why would a musician’s Oscar acceptance speech cause an Olympic diver to trend on Twitter? Sam Smith managed to make just that happen this week, and cause quite a stir.

 Poor Sam Smith. It was one of the highlights of his career as he accepted the Oscar for Best Original Song at the weekend. He even had a heartfelt message planned for his acceptance speech.

 But as he took to the stage with his co-writer Jimmy Napes, things all went a bit wrong for the Grammy Award-winning singer as he claimed he was the first openly gay man to win an Oscar.

 In his speech, he said: “I read an article a few months ago by Sir Ian McKellen and he said that no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar.

“If this is the case – even if it isn’t the case – I want to dedicate this to the LGBT community all around the world.”

What was meant to be a dedication turned into a farce, as it turns out this wasn’t what McKellen said. In an interview with The Guardian, when McKellen was asked about the diversity debate surrounding the Oscars, he said that homophobia was just as much a problem as racism in Hollywood. He said, “Why has no openly gay man ever won the Best Actor Oscar?” Read the interview here.

So what can journalists learn from this situation? Check your sources. A journalist could be sued for misquoting. This whole kerfuffle could have been avoided if Smtih had noted the key term “best actor” in the interview.

 In a famous libel case of Masson vs New Yorker Magazine, the Supreme Court stated: “regardless of the truth or falsity of the factual matters asserted within the quoted statement, the attribution may result in injury to reputation because the manner of expression or even the fact that the statement was made indicates a negative personal trait or an attitude the speaker does not hold.”

 In Smith’s instance, not only has he got the facts wrong and casued injury to his own reputation, but he also potentially injured McKellen’s reputation by inferring that McKellen did not know correct information about gay Oscar winners.

 In fact, McKellen’s information was accurate, as no openly gay man has ever won the Best Actor Oscar. So it was just Smith in the wrong for misquoting McKellen, although if McKellen were to take legal action, he could argue that his reputation was temporarily damaged.

 To be fair to Smith, he did say “if” in his speech, but that little word doesn’t matter to gossip mongers. It also didn’t matter to Dustin Lance Black, the winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Milk, and the fiancé of British Olympic diver, Tom Daley.

 He responded to Smith’s tweet in a scathing tone, along with a link to a video of his own Oscar acceptance speech: “Hey @SamSmithWorld, if you have no idea who I am, it may be time to stop texting my fiancé. Here’s a start: [link to video]”.

 This tweet unearthed more trolls for Smith, as Lance Black inferred that the singer was texting Daley. Smith was then bombarded with tweets requesting Daley’s phone number, which in turn caused Tom Dayley to trend on Twitter.

 McKellen has since come to Smith’s defence, tweeting “I’d said no openly gay actor had received #Oscars – that doesn’t detract from @samsmithworld achievement. Congratulations to him & all others!” 

 And it’s not just Lance Black who’s represented the gay community by picking up an Oscar. Time Magazine has claimed Smith’s speech did ‘disservice’ to the LGBT community by not acknowledging former winners. Past winners also include Elton John and Stephen Sondheim, who both won for Best Original Song, as well as Disney composer Howard Ashman, and Alan Ball who won Best Original Screenplay for American Beauty.

 Smith later defended himself with another series of tweets:

 “Second openly gay man to win an oscar or third or fourth or 100th, It wasn’t my point. My point was to shine some light on the LGBT community who i love so dearly.

“Apologies for the mix up @DLanceBlack I’ll be sure to check out your films now x Belated Congrats on the Oscar x?

 Turns out he could have just dedicated the Oscar to the LGBT community without referencing McKellen’s inverview and saved himself a whole lot of trouble! In the wake of the social media storm, Smith has decided to retreat from social media while the situation cools.

 “​I’m logging off for a while. Some Martinis shaken not stirred are definitely in order.​”

 It just goes to show how things can get of hand so quickly, especially in the age of social media when everyone wants to throw their opinion into the mix. What can we learn from this? If you’re going to reference someone, be it in writing or verbally, always check exactly what they have said to avoid embarrassment for you and all others involved.

 P.S. It in fact turns out that Sam Smith and Daley are friends, after Lance Black revelaed that his tweet was partly meant in jest, but also to shed light on what Smith probably should have just said in the first place.

 “THE POINT: knowing our LGBTQ history is important. We stand on the shoulders of countless brave men and women who paved the way for us.”

“Dear Internet: @TomDaley1994 and @samsmithworld are pals. They text. Thus my surprise Sam took me for a closet case! Feel free to laugh.”



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