Erroneous early report of death was amplified by social media

January 22, 2012

Novice reporters have long been admonished to double-check a news tip, even if the tip happens to be that your mother says she loves you. In the case of Joe Paterno’s death, some forgot the basics.

The result was a chain reaction of misreporting that grew blindly from a student journalist’s Twitter post erroneously suggesting that Paterno, 85, had succumbed to lung cancer on Saturday night. The legendary former Penn State football coach actually died Sunday morning, about 14 hours after some media sources had already declared him dead.

The premature reporting suggests the “me-too” nature of the news media in a digital age, with one outlet quickly parroting another’s reporting without doing its own checking. It also says much about the power of Twitter, a favorite tool of journalists for quickly spreading commentary and news — including, it turns out, the inaccurate kind.

The domino that tipped over the entire line on Saturday was a tweet from a student-run Web site, Onward State, that covers the State College, Pa., community. “Our sources can now confirm: Joseph Vincent Paterno has passed away tonight at the age of 85,” the site reported via Twitter around 8:45 p.m.

Almost immediately, the information was picked up and relayed as fact by a series of Web sites, including CBSSports.com, the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast. Based on these postings, other journalists jumped in with tweets of their own. And so, like a fast-moving brush fire, the news spread across the country within minutes.

Except Onward State had gotten some seriously bad information.

In a posting on the site on Sunday, Davis Shaver, Onward’s founder, explained that one of his writers, whom he would not identify, had received the information about Paterno’s death around 8 p.m. He said the information came from a source, whom Shaver also would not identify, who said that Paterno’s passing had been confirmed in an e-mail sent to Penn State athletes by a high-ranking school official. The site later discovered that the e-mail was a hoax, according to Shaver.

Shortly thereafter, a second Onward writer “confirmed” the e-mail from the Penn State official, which prompted Managing Editor Devon Edwards to tweet the news to the world. On Sunday, Shaver wrote that the second writer, also unidentified, “had not been honest in his information.”

Shaver would not discuss the matter further on Sunday. “We are continuing to examine the events of last night but do not have any further comment on the matter at this time,” he said in an e-mail.

By Sunday afternoon, journalists who had repeated Onward State’s comedy-of-errors reporting were left to ponder the old rule about double-checking information.

“When I saw a Daily Beast headline that Paterno had died, I tweeted that this was sad news without checking that it had been based on a CBS Sports blog that turned out to be wrong,” said Howard Kurtz, Washington bureau chief for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, who hosts a CNN talk show about the media. “I was busy with a story on the South Carolina primary, but no excuse: It was a dumb move and a reminder to always check before tweeting.” (Kurtz is a former media columnist for The Washington Post).

In apologizing for posting the erroneous news, CBSSports.com Managing Editor Mark Swanson on Sunday wrote on his site that the mistake “was the result of a failure to verify the original report. CBSSports.com holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations.” Swanson failed to mention that the CBS site did not credit Onward State when it first posted the news, but it did blame them when the story turned out to be wrong.

Huffington Post spokesman Mario Ruiz said an editor for the news site “made a mistake by relying only on one CBS report, and in so doing he did not adhere to our policy of checking beyond just one source before posting a story. We corrected the piece pretty quickly.”

Journalists are fond of social media sites, especially Twitter, which permits the nearly instantaneous dissemination of headlines and links to news stories. Before the advent of the micro-blogging site in 2006, reporters had few tools to “pull” online followers to their work or to breaking news or commentary by others. Many journalists use Twitter as a kind of personal wire service, broadcasting news and views to thousands of “followers” several times a day.

But Facebook and Twitter can also be used to spread inaccurate information as well, as the Paterno debacle shows.

“There’s a lot of hand-wringing today about the erroneous reports on Joe Paterno’s death, and no doubt everyone will be a bit more careful the next time a well-known person’s death is tweeted or reported on Facebook,” said Jim Romenesko, a veteran media-industry blogger. “But this will happen again.”

Romenesko pointed to what Devon Edwards, Onward State’s managing editor, wrote in resigning his job as a result of the Paterno incident: “In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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