Premature reports of Joe Paterno’s death raise questions about some news organizations

News about Joe Paterno’s rapidly declining health was misreported Saturday evening. Several publications reported that the former Penn State football coach had died. Photo: Los Angeles Times

It’s a sin in the journalism profession to fail to independently confirm rumors as fact before reporting them.

Usually, you confirm the facts from more than one source.  That’s a basic Journalism 101 rule.

Unfortunately, it happens too often, especially in the online world where the race to be first to report a story sometimes comes before confirming the story facts.

Some journalists and news organizations learn quickly from such painful and embarrassing mistakes. Others make the same mistakes over and over.

It happened again Saturday tonight. The Penn State University student website Onward State tweeted at 8:45 p.m. that Penn State football team players were notified by email that longtime former head coach Joe Paterno, diagnosed with lung cancer, had died at age 85.

Shortly after Online State published the erroneous word of Paterno’s death, Paterno family spokesperson Dan McGinn told the New York Times that the report of Paterno’s demise was “absolutely not true. ”

Joe Paterno’s son, Jay Paterno tweeted that his father “continues to fight.”  Scott Paterno, Joe Paterno’s other son wrote:

Online State Managing Editor Devon Edwards apologized for the anguish it caused the Paterno family. Photo: OnwardState.com

Online State retracted the story and tweeted an apology. Not long afterward, Online State Managing Editor Devon Edwards wrote an online letter  apologizing for the mistake and anguish it caused the Paterno family and Penn State community.

  Edwards also wrote:

“…… I hope you will continue to stand by us as we do everything in our power to make amends.  To begin that process, I will be stepping down from my post as Managing Editor, effective immediately. 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.

Sincerely, Devon Edwards

Forgiveness called for

I believe in Edwards’ sincerity and remorse for this journalism sin. He was quick to take responsibility for his actions. He recognized the pain the inaccurate report caused the Paterno family as well as the credibility damage it could cause Onward State.

As a young journalism practitioner I hope Edwards will reconsider his resignation. According to his bio, Edwards is not a journalism major. He’s a senior majoring in sociology and political science. I wonder what journalism training he has had at Penn State. I wonder if others at Onward State helped fact check the erroneous Paterno story too.

I hope Edwards will rededicate himself to using this painful experience to improve the journalism profession. He should openly preach the importance of independent fact confirmation to other young journalists so they may never make the mistake Edwards made Saturday night.

I’m less forgiving of professional news organizations such as CBSSports.com who tweeted the erroneous “Paterno is dead” report based only on the Onward State tweet without independently confirming the story.  Where are their fact checkers?

According to the New York Daily News:

 “At 8:47 tonight, CBSSports.com published a brief story saying Paterno was dead, linking to Onward State’s tweet. Before 9 p.m., HuffingtonPost.com also posted a report of Paterno’s death, without citing a source.

Elsewhere around the Internet, websites such as NJ.com (The Newark Star-Ledger’s website), TheBigLead.com and BleacherReport.com published stories citing the CBS report.”

CBSSports.com apologized to the Paterno family for the unsubstantiated reporting, saying

The Huffington Post published this:

There is a distinction

It’s one thing for a college student, with little reporting experience, to make this type of mistake. It’s worse when a professional organization such as CBSSports.com or the Huffington Post do it, especially with less transparency than college publications like Onward State.

The difference

Professional reporters and editors are hired to get facts right. They’re supposed to independently confirm them. Their audiences are bigger. They make quite a bit of money. Some of their reports don’t identify the authors of the story.

These organization’s mistakes don’t just damage their own credibility. They also damage the credibility of journalists in general. I won’t even bother discussing the obvious legal liabilities associated with such poor reporting.

 A fix is needed…so is more transparency

Here is what I suggest professional news organizations do when they report unsubstantiated information:

  1. Immediately publish a correction with confirmed, accurate information.
  2. If needed, issue an apology signed by those responsible for the inaccurate report.
  3. Publish an editor’s note to viewers, readers and listeners explaining what the news organization will do to prevent such mistakes from happening again.
  4. Send an internal memo to news organization employees explaining what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what it will do to prevent such mistakes from happening again.
  5. Explain that repeat offenders may be suspended or fired for dereliction of duty.

These suggestions won’t stop unsubstantiated reports from  being published by news organizations. They might reduce the volume though of bad reporting.

Hopefully, they would remind journalists of their important responsibility to independently confirm facts before publishing the news. After all, it’s a basic rule of  journalism. It’s a basic rule of human courtesy too.

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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5 Responses to Premature reports of Joe Paterno’s death raise questions about some news organizations

  1. jonny says:

    There is an article about the family turning off the ventilator here http://bit.ly/yEa4fV

  2. barneymccoy says:

    At the time though Joe Paterno was still reported to be alive by his family.

  3. Toshiba M205 Battery says:

    Jo Paterno is still alive. Id find it quite rude if everyone was posting about my family being dead if they were still fighting getthafacts

  4. Jon says:

    Journalism reporter Howard Kurtz, formerly of WaPo fame, and now with the Daily Beast admitted on his CNN TV show today that he too had tweeted this then erroneous news last night.

  5. Pingback: In the race to be first, you end up last | Journalism 310 – Digital Journalism

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