Media organizations and an interested public sat on edge Saturday afternoon, knowing grim news could come at any moment. Just before 6 p.m. PST, it did.
Onward State, a student news site at Penn State, tweeted that according to its sources legendary former Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno had died at 85.
The news was jarring but not unexpected.
Paterno had learned he had lung cancer in November shortly after being fired from his post in the wake of an explosive sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.
And, a few hours before Onward State’s report, just before 3 p.m. Saturday, a newspaper in northeastern Pennsylvania had reported that Paterno had fallen gravely ill and that family and close friends had been summoned to say their final goodbyes.
Onward State’s report went viral and some media organizations, including CBSSports.com, went with the story.
But it wasn’t true.
“CBS report is wrong — Dad is alive but in serious condition,” Joe Paterno’s son, Scott Paterno, tweeted.
Later that night, Onward State retracted its original report and issued an apology.
“In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right,” wrote Devon Edwards, who resigned as managing editor, “but our intention was never to fall into that chasm.”
Onward State wasn’t the only one. Far more prestigious institutions with professional journalists did as well.
CBSSports.com’s initial report did not cite Onward State as the source of its information but included a link to the student news site’s story. Shortly afterward, in a version that acknowledged conflicting reports, it cited Onward State by name as its source.
CBSSports.com managing editor Mark Swanson issued a public apology near midnight, admitting the original report it cited wasn’t verified. “CBSSports.com holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations,” Swanson wrote.
The impact of such misreporting reverberated into Sunday when Paterno’s family announced that he had died.
It is not the first time a well-known figure was pronounced dead too soon.
Last January, several media outlets falsely reported that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot during a public event in Arizona.
But, as Edwards wrote, the age of social media has created a culture in which being first means reaping a high volume of treasured Web traffic and, therefore, notoriety.
Yet despite the almost instantaneous media cycle that some argue can quickly erase mistakes from the public consciousness, the risk of inaccuracy can still tarnish reputations.
In fact, because social media allow for information to spread worldwide in a heartbeat, mistakes can have an even more widespread and devastating impact than before.
“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State would be cited by the national media,” Edwards wrote, “and today, I sincerely wish it never had been.”
But the argument that social media, such as Twitter, function outside traditional journalistic standards isn’t exactly true. “Don’t blame ‘modern media culture’ for botching JoePa,” tweeted New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro. “In ’63, wire services were real-time & both waited to report JFK. Sloppy is sloppy.”
Edwards declined an interview request but pointed to an explanation Onward State published Sunday of how its erroneous report originated.
It stated that a source had forwarded one of its writers an email that apparently had been sent from a Penn State athletics official (later found to be a hoax) to campus athletes, notifying them of Paterno’s death.
“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,” the explanation reads.
With that information in hand, Edwards decided to tweet that Paterno had died.
Later, when it was found to be false, some pointed out an adage by legendary CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite, once known as “the most trusted man in America”:
“Get it first, but get it right.”