Social media sets off firestorm of false reports that Joe Paterno died

January 22, 2012

Reports of Joe Paterno’s death turned out to be greatly exaggerated Saturday night. But unlike Mark Twain’s famous declaration that he was still alive 115 years ago, the erroneous accounts about the former Penn State football coach’s demise traveled far and wide within minutes, whipped into a firestorm by social media.

The false reports began Saturday evening, when Onward State, a student-run Web site affiliated with Penn State, apparently was the first to report that Paterno, 85, had died. The site said it based its report on an e-mail sent to the school’s football players.

The student report was picked up by a local Top 40 radio station, WBHV (94.5 FM), which added the detail that Paterno had died with his family by his side, according to the Poynter Institute, a journalism-education organization that itself tweeted the inaccurate report.

Within minutes of Onward’s story, the news appeared on CBS Sports’s Web site, followed by the Huffington Post and Deadspin. Journalists began tweeting it, too, including Anderson Cooper of CNN and Howard Kurtz, the former media columnist for The Washington Post and host of a Sunday morning CNN program. Both Cooper and Kurtz later corrected themselves.

But Paterno, who was seriously ill with lung cancer, hadn’t died. He died Sunday morning.

Family members and Penn State tweeted statements Saturday denying the media accounts. At 9:21 p.m., Paterno’s son Jay tweeted that Paterno “is continuing to fight.” Another son, Scott, told his Twitter followers, “Dad is alive but in serious condition. We continue to ask for your prayers and privacy during this time.” (The Post, citing individuals close to Paterno’s family, reported Saturday night that Paterno remained connected to a ventilator and that his family was weighing whether to take him off the ventilator Sunday).

The Paterno incident demonstrates the consequences of reporting unverified information from an obscure source. It also suggests once again how quickly information, including the inaccurate kind, can move in the digital age. The entire life cycle of the Paterno story — from initial death reports to face-saving corrections — took about 45 minutes.

The episode brings to mind the media chain reaction that followed NPR’s erroneous report a year ago that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had died after being shot in Tucson. Giffords was severely wounded in the shooting, but survived.

Even as news organizations and journalists scrambled Saturday to correct their misinformation, the initial accounts touched off a massive wave of Paterno-is-dead postings on Facebook and Twitter.

“Say it ain’t so,” one Penn State student posted to Facebook around 9:45 pm. “RIP, JoePa.”

Another student posted a quote he attributed to Paterno: “’They asked me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not that I was a good football coach.’ Joe Paterno, RIP.”

A few minutes after that, another student responded, “I heard he’s not dead.” And still another scolded: “Just thought everyone should know: Paterno family is denying the story he’s dead. Do some research, people.”

Several journalists took to Twitter late Saturday and early Sunday to criticize their own. “Paterno mess should teach journalists to — G-forbid — report before reporting,” tweeted Joe Flint, the Los Angeles Times’ media reporter. “Unlikely, as we we live in age of shoot first and aim later.”

In a note posted Saturday night on Onward State’s Web site and Facebook page, managing editor Devon Edwards retracted the Paterno story and said he was resigning. “There are no excuses for what we did,” he wrote. “We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

He added, “I take full responsibility for the events that transpired tonight, and for the black mark upon the organization that I have caused. I ask not for your forgiveness, but for your understanding. I am so very, very, sorry, and we at Onward State continue to pray for Coach Paterno.”

Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I football history, lost his job after 61 years at Penn State this fall, amid questions about his role in an unfolding child sex-abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach.

Critics have questioned whether Paterno did enough to call attention to a report he received in 2002 from a student assistant coach who told him that he had witnessed former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raping a boy in the school’s locker room.

In an exclusive interview with The Washington Post last week, Paterno said he didn’t know how to react when he was told about the alleged incident. “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it,” he said. “I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”

Sandusky faces 52 counts of child molestation; Paterno has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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