Some mistakes are a matter of life and death

Poynter’s annual roundup of the best (and worst) media mistakes did not include one major error: the premature reports that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died.

Penn State student news website Onward State reported Paterno’s death at 8:45 p.m on Jan. 21, while he was still alive. That report was picked up by CBS Sports, Huffington Post, Breaking News and others, including Poynter. A family spokesperson denied the reports, and the accurate information began spreading. Paterno died the following day. The Managing Editor of Onward State resigned and the CBS Sports writer responsible for the report was fired.

Paterno’s death wasn’t the only one media got wrong this year. When filmmaker Tony Scott committed suicide, ABC News reported that he had brain cancer. Despite denials by the family, the network did not correct the report until two months later.

ABC also aired inaccurate speculation that Aurora, Colorado theater shooting suspect James Holmes was a member of the Tea Party. That was a different James Holmes.

When NBC broke the news that astronaut Neil Armstrong died in August, it briefly identified him as Neil Young instead.

Byliner tweeted a story about Dick Cheney, who is alive, when it meant to tweet one about Dick Clark, who had just died.

The Washington Post credited former UPI photographer Stan Stearns with nabbing the sole image of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting President Kennedy’s coffin. The photo most associated with that moment was shot by New York Daily News photographer Dan Farrell.

The Los Angeles Times’ print obituary for Hollywood impresario Irving Fein listed many notable accomplishments during his many years in show business — made all the more notable because the headline said he’d lived for only one year.

Perhaps inspired by the hat trick of errors in Christopher Hitchens’ obituary last December, The New York Times had at least three instances where obituaries had three errors apiece: Gore Vidal’s (he didn’t call William F. Buckley Jr. a “crypto-fascist,” for instance), Jeffrey Zaslow’s (Chesley B. Sullenberger III flew “an Airbus A320 with about 150 passengers, not a commuter plane”) and Gustav Leonhardt’s (“one of the churches in Amsterdam where Mr. Leonhardt has been organist is Waalse Kerk, not Waasle Kerk”).

Finally, you can’t tell the story of obituaries in 2012 without mentioning Rex Huppke’s “obituary for facts” in the Chicago Tribune.

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