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

Former Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno died Sunday, but not before several news organizations erroneously reported Saturday that he had died. Photo: Associated Press

More revelations today about news organizations that failed to independently confirm unsubstantiated reports last night that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died. Paterno has since died, but at the time he was still alive.

Saturday night, Penn State University student website Onward State tweeted 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.

The email was false. Paterno was still alive.  CBSSports.com tweeted the erroneous “Paterno is dead” report based only on the Onward State tweet without independently confirming the story.

The Wrap’s Tim Malloy reports that the New York Times and CNN were among the first to get a denial from a Paterno family spokesman that the 85-year-old, who was battling lung cancer, had died.

Wrote Malloy:

“By then several news outlets and reporters, including TheWrap, The Huffington Post, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Howard Kurtz, the host of the journalism standards show “Reliable Sources,” had written about the death, all after the CBS report. Even the group Poynter, a champion of accurate journalism,  tweeted that Paterno had died.”

Malloy pointed out that the reporters and organizations quickly changed their stories as the CBS account came into doubt. “So began an ugly game of finger pointing in a media hall of mirrors, where primary sources were initially hard to come by,” wrote Malloy.

The Wrap also cited the CBS death story without first contacting a Paterno spokesman. “We regret this error,” wrote Malloy.

Why did this happen?

Sloppy, lazy journalism, which really isn’t journalism at all. Misplaced values and priorities could be a culprit too. Is it possible that newsroom cultures are more easily seduced by a burning desire to be first to report news in order to build website traffic without independently vetting the story?

Eric Wemple of the Washington Post writes:

“…….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.”

Many of the news organizations that jumped the independent confirmation gun apologized. CBSSports.com, which started the major media fail to independently confirm domino effect said: “CBSSports.com holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations.”

Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough if you repeat the mistake over again. The burden of proof is on news organizations to do better. Would it hurt to have  more vetting guidelines in place. Sure, they might slow down the rush to be the first to break a story. On the other hand, they’d help remind journalists and other news employees that independent fact verification is a non-negotiable part of every news story published, tweeted, or broadcast,,,,,and every news organization’s credibility with their audience.

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm an associate 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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2 Responses to Post script: Premature reports of Joe Paterno’s death raise questions about some news organizations

  1. David says:

    Are you suggesting that all journalists visit his hospital room before making their report? How about the thousands of them all calling the hospital? If they do, they are relying that the person on the other end of the line is has actually been in his room recently to determine the status. How would (could) this work in the internet age? If you were reporting on this item, what level of certainty would you seek? Is there a guideline for that level? I guess what I’m saying is that short of you visiting his room, it is very difficult to determine the validity of a report such as this.

    • barneymccoy says:

      I suggest all journalists not report the story until they independently confirm the information. They should and could pick up a phone and call the hospital, the university, the designated family spokesman (they had one here), a family member. What would be more painful? Calling a family member and asking politely for confirmation or wrongly reporting that Joe Paterno had died when he had not? You don’t report until you confirm the facts.

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