Joe Paterno died this morning at the age of 85. That’s not long after he gave a revealing interview to The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins. And not long after the news broke on a child-molestation scandal that tarnished Paterno’s legacy in what turned out to be his dying days.
What’s more, it’s certainly not long after the first reports of his death began to circulate last night, while he was still alive. As The Post’s Paul Farhi notes, the first bogus report of Paterno’s death surfaced on the student-run Web site OnwardState.com, which reports aggressively on Penn State sports. Today, the site explained just how this mess arose:
But at around 8:00 p.m., one of our writers posted that he had received word from a source that Joe Paterno had died. The source had been forwarded an email ostensibly sent from a high-ranking athletics official (later found to be a hoax) to Penn State athletes with information of Paterno’s passing. A second writer — whom we later found out had not been honest in his information — confirmed to us that the email had been sent to football players. With two independent confirmations of an email announcing his death, managing editor Devon Edwards was confident in the story and hit send on the tweet we had written, informing the world that Joe Paterno had died.
So OnwardState.com went with it. When a reputable, if upstart, collegiate site with real-live reporters “breaks” a story of this magnitude, it’s not going to stay confined to the collegiate site, this being 2012 and all. The ripples were getting ready to roll out.
CBSSports.com bit Since CBSSports.com bit, well, everyone else bit. Among the more influential biters was the Huffington Post. With an acclaimed nationwide reach, HuffPo not only got it wrong but also didn’t even cite a source for its wrongness. A correction later bubbled up at the bottom of its story:
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported Paterno’s death and did not properly attribute the source. We apologize for the error.
Well, at least HuffPo wasn’t pointing fingers. When asked how the site erred, spokesperson Mario Ruiz said that it all was pretty “self-explanatory.” It was the CBSSports.com story, said Ruiz, that had prompted HuffPo to green-light its aggregation piece. “Obviously an editor made a mistake,” says Ruiz, noting that the person in question “violated policy by not checking beyond one source.”
An official for CBSSports.com declined to comment beyond the official statement, which it put on its site last night.
Bonus points for all the outlets that didn’t take the bait. The Associated Press saw all the activity on Twitter and elsewhere in response to OnwardState and CBSSports.com. Lou Ferrara, the AP’s managing editor for sports and entertainment news, checked in with the wire’s news desk. “We didn’t have evthg right and nailed down” on the alleged death, says Ferrara. “We want to be right when it comes to somebody dying. We want to make sure we are 100 percent on the money.” The AP, says Ferrara, was the first news outlet to report Paterno’s actual death.
The takeaways from this episode start with the founding error: OnwardState.com swallowed a hoax e-mail as it stumbled toward an historic blunder. Hoaxsters are out there, and they’re good, as MSNBC will tell you. They can gin up e-mails, press releases and any other documents that’ll appeal to the media’s appetites. They generally leverage the media’s increasing reliance on electronic communications to conduct business. The telephone is a helpful tool in counteracting them.
Yet it won’t get called into action as often as it should. That’s because the Paterno-death mistake, let’s face it — this is the way our contemporary media work or don’t work. The Huffington Post can say that its policies were violated; CBSSports.com can say its policies were violated; and we can believe that they regret what happened. However, the pressures that bear on a Saturday night aggregation team at CBSSports.com and HuffingtonPost.com point in the direction opposite of those policies. The imperative is to pounce on news when it happens and, in this case, before it happens. To wait for another source is to set the table for someone who’s going to steal your search traffic.
Says Tommy Craggs, editor of Deadspin, a popular sports site that aggregated the CBSSports.com aggregation: “This is the sort of thing Poynter will have 10 seminars devoted to. This will always happen when the incentives are lined up in this way.”
All the more opportunity, then for media outlets to get better and better at apologizing for their trigger fingers. Here, CBSSports.com nails the contrition with concision:
Earlier Saturday night, CBSSports.com published an unsubstantiated report that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. That 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.
CBSSports.com extends its profound and sincere apology to the Paterno family and the Penn State community during their difficult time.