Check your facts–and then check again

Paterno was head coach of Penn State for 46 years and won 409 games. Photo via audreyjm529/Flickr.

Joe Paterno, the winningest college football coach, died today at 85 (may he rest in peace). But, his death was first reported last night and spread all over Twitter and Facebook. Things like #RIPJoePa and “You will be missed Joe Paterno” started popping up on my Twitter feed and Facebook news. Wondering if the news was true, I went to Google. At the top of the results was a report from CBS News: “Joe Paterno dead at 85.”

Wow, it must be true, I thought.

Then, about 15 minutes later I hopped back on Twitter to read feedback regarding the South Carolina primary. But it wasn’t just SC political news that was populating my feed–there were also numerous tweets about the erroneous reports regarding Paterno’s passing.

So what happened? How did the media get it wrong and why?

Paterno’s death was originally reported, via Twitter, by Onward State, a self-described “student-run community news site” for and by Penn State students. According to founder and general manager Davis Shaver, who published a post explaining the error, a reporter posted that he had received information from a source that Paterno had died. According to the source, he/she had been forwarded an email about Paterno’s passing that had been sent to Penn State athletes (which was later found out to be a hoax.) A second writer confirmed the email and then Onward State decided to publish.

The news was then picked up by various media outlets including CBS and the Huffington Post. Shortly afterward, the report was retracted, Onward State issued an apology and the managing editor, Devon Edwards, resigned.

The question is, had I been managing editor of a community news site, would I have published the story based on reports from two writers verifying the same email? I know it’s easier to say now, in retrospect and in a figurative manner, but I honestly know I wouldn’t. If there is anything I have learned from all those journalism classes and professor after professor preaching the same, old rules–you check your facts and then you check them two more times.

It’s just what you do.

Even in this time of mustgetnewsnow, all news all the time, “we have to be the first to post the story”–YOU STILL CHECK YOUR FACTS. Most of the time, the audience won’t remember who is first, but they will remember who got it wrong. Onward State and its reporters and editors learned a lesson and so should all the other media organizations who followed suit.

Additional Reading:

  • Romensko published an email he received from Onward State founder Davis Shaver
  • Jeff Sonderman from Poynter (which also incorrectly reported Paterno’s passing) offered a storify blog that tells the whole story tweet by tweet

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