As has been much documented, several media outlets misreported that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died Jan. 21. Numerous corrections, retractions and apologies followed those initial reports as Paterno’s family denied that he had died.
The next day, Jan. 22, Paterno did die of lung cancer.
The wrong reporting all started with Penn State student news site Onward State‘s tweet based on a what later turned out to be a hoax e-mail. National news outlets picked up the story – some without properly attributing their information to the college site, and later had to correct.
Because of the misreporting, a student journalist resigned and a CBS reporter was fired.
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple gave “bonus points” to news outlets that withheld from reporting Paterno’s death without full confirmation, like the Associated Press.
In a Jan. 22 post, Onward State explained how its error occurred. The site, which describes itself as a “community news site,” reported wrongly on Paterno’s death because an Onward State writer heard Paterno died “from a source.” Onward State explained:
“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.”
After its initial tweet of Paterno’s death Onward State later tweeted that same day that its “8:45 pm tweet about Joe Paterno’s death appears to be inaccurate, according to @JayPaterno, who says he’s alive…We were confident when we ran with it, and are still trying to figure out where our process failed. We apologize sincerely for error.”
It appears Onward State deleted its original tweet about Paterno’s death.
Onward State managing editor Devon Edwards published a Jan. 21 apology for the misreport, retracted the claim, and resigned. He wrote:
“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having misled you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not … There are no excuses for what we did. 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.”
From Onward State to CBS, HuffPo, People, Howard Kurz, Star-Ledger, Poynter, Breaking News
Chicago Now called the mis-reporting a “game of ‘adult’ telephone” and sequenced the wrong news starting from Onward State’s original tweet announcing Paterno’s death to CBS News and the Huffington Post.
After Onward State’s first tweet, “CBS Sports pounced on Edwards’ tweet, but took full credit for the story,” the New York Times reported Paterno’s spokesperson said Paterno wasn’t dead, Paterno’s son confirmed Paterno’s not dead on Twitter, CBS retracted its report, and Edwards resigned over the incident.
In a Jan. 22 post, the AP noted that “Other media, including CBSSports.com, People.com and the Huffington Post, reported Paterno’s death after the Onward State tweet but before he died.” Also, Poynter noted that it also tweeted wrongly that Paterno died.
According to the Washington Post, the Daily Beast/Newsweek‘s Howard Kurtz re-tweeted the Daily Beast’s “headline that Paterno had died” as “sad news.” Kurtz called the wrong tweet “a dumb move and a reminder to always check before tweeting.”
CNN added that the Guardian and the Star-Ledger also “based their accounts on CBSSports” and Twitter account @breakingnews “inked to the CBS story. The news was tweeted and re-tweeted, spawning several trending topics on Twitter.”
The Star-Ledger also published a story “report: Paterno dead at age 85” on its sports front page,according to MinnPost.com. It also published “for a scant 12 minutes, from 8:03 p.m. to *(:15 p.m.” a story titled “Media reports: Paterno has died at age 85,” according to MinnPost.com.
At 8:15 p.m., the Paterno dead story was “replaced by” a story titled “Family denies media reports that Paterno has died.”
The fake news even made its way to Wikipedia, according to CNN, which said “all of this occurred within 15 minutes, before a Paterno family spokesman, and then Paterno’s sons, set the record straight.”
CBS Sports Lack of Attribution Criticized
Poynter’s Silverman called CBS Sports “incredibly stingy” for its lack of credit and criticized CBS Sports for its lack of transparency in the mis-reporting of Paterno’s death. According to Silverman’s report on the media’s errors in reporting on Paterno’s death, CBS News re-reported Onward State’s claim that Paterno died but didn’t name Onward State until “the information was proven incorrect.”
Chicago Now likewise slammed CBS Sports’ Adam Jacobi for “greedily” re-reporting Onward State’s tweet without credit and crediting Onward State “only AFTER the story is dismissed as fake.”
Silverman noted that in terms of transparency, Onward State “was clear about its error,” whereas CBS Sports “simply updated its story” and didn’t apologize until “just before midnight” Jan. 21.
CBS Sports’ apology read:
“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
CBS Sports’ Jacobi has since been fired. He tweeted about his firing Jan. 27, Poynter noted. Jacobi wrote: “In the end, CBS had to let me go for the Paterno story going out the way it did, and I understand completely. Thanks, everyone, for reading.”
Huffington Post Corrects
Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman noted that the Huffington Post re-reported Onward State’s claim that Paterno died, also without crediting Onward State. But, Sonderman noted Huffington Post added a correction to “properly attribute” Onward State.
That correction reads: “CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported Paterno’s death and did not properly attribute the source. We apologize for the error.”
Is it Twitter or Fact-Checking?
Northwestern University’s student newspaper The Daily Northwestern called the incident “a warning against rushing to report a story before it is confirmed” and an example of the “media emphasis on immediacy.” The Daily Northwestern also reported that a professor from its Medill journalism school, Jeremy GIlbert however, argued it’s not an example of social media failures but fact checking.
Likewise, the Los Angeles Times reported that New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro tweeted that the wrong reports aren’t the fault of “modern media culture.” Instead, it’s a lack of fact checking.
“In ’63, wire services were real-time & both waited to report JFK. Sloppy is sloppy,” Vaccaro tweeted, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Hat Tip: London Shearer Allen