3 verification lessons from the Joe Paterno death debacle

I realize we are approaching the point of over-analysis of the false reports of Joe Paterno’s death, and I’m perhaps the worst offender. Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs recently told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, “This is the sort of thing Poynter will have 10 seminars devoted to.”

Well, no seminars so far. But this, my third and hopefully final post on the topic, is an effort to take a bad error and turn it into the proverbial teachable moment. There exists within journalism a broad failure to learn from our mistakes and apply that knowledge to our work.

Mistakes are inevitable in the work we do, and the staff of Onward State did an admirable job of owning up to, and explaining, theirs. But understanding the cause of mistakes is not the same as acknowledging them.

Verification breakdown

As I pointed out in my story about how the AP avoided making the Paterno error, one way to achieve accuracy is to foster open communication between team members at all levels. Another way is to practice proper verification.

Onward State declared Paterno dead because two of their writers appeared to provide confirmation that an email had gone out to football players from a senior administration official announcing the news. In the end, this email was a hoax, and one Onward State writer was not honest in what he told his colleagues. (He said he’d spoken to a football player who received the email. That never happened.)

This is a tough scenario. Journalists are told to get verifiable evidence, like an email, and to use multiple sources. Onward State thought they had both. (ProPublica’s Daniel Victor detailed the sourcing issues here.)

Onward State’s fundamental mistake was to misunderstand what was required to confirm the email. The information that came from their two writers did not represent confirmation. Worse, one of their writers was dishonest in presenting the information he’d gathered; this amplified the verification challenge by introducing fraudulent information.

Confirming the Paterno email

Lesson one: When a major piece of information comes via email, voice mail, document etc., your job is to confirm the authenticity of the email/voicemail/document as much as it is to verify the contents of the message. Dare I say the medium is the message?

So what was the best way to confirm that email? As an example, here’s an excerpt of what AP’s Ted Anthony told me about how they confirmed Paterno’s actual death Sunday morning:

The statement [from the Paterno family] came from the same email address that the statements had been coming from for two and a half months. It came from the same person, and it had been telegraphed [by the family] that we would expect something … there was also the recognition of the voice on the phone. There was no rumor involved and no question it had come from a source we had been working with for two and a half months.

Onward State’s inaccurate death report and AP’s correct death report both relied at least in part on emails, but one had no context and the other had a lot of context.

The email to the AP came from an established address and person. For close to three months, the Paterno family had been distributing official communiqués using the same address. They had a spokesman who was also in touch with AP and other media. There was a history with this source, and he was a primary source.

Lesson two: If you’re covering an ongoing story and there’s a change in a method of communication or the source of big news, be even more cautious than usual.

Onward State was relying on an email that an administration official had supposedly sent to football players announcing Paterno’s death. Here’s how general manager Davis Shaver detailed the chain of events. (Disclosure: Shaver interned for me a couple of summers ago when I was managing editor of PBS MediaShift):

At around 8:00 p.m., one of our writers posted that he had received word from a source that Joe Paterno had died. The source had been forwarded an email ostensibly sent from a high-ranking athletics official (later found to be a hoax) to Penn State athletes with information of Paterno’s passing. 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. With two independent confirmations of an email announcing his death, managing editor Devon Edwards was confident in the story and hit send on the tweet we had written, informing the world that Joe Paterno had died.

The first element that stands out is there wasn’t a track record of major Paterno news being communicated by email to football players and other school athletes. That’s a red flag that requires additional work to verify.

Lesson three: When considering how to confirm a piece of information, determine the ideal person(s) to provide confirmation. Contact them, rather than only dealing with the sources you have.

A critical issue is the two people who said an email had been sent did not constitute double source confirmation. Worst of all, one of Onward State’s own writers was dishonest in saying a football player had confirmed receiving the email. The other writer was forwarded a copy of the email.

Now, a dishonest reporter is not something you expect and it’s hard to defend against. One way of mitigating that person’s report would have been to secure second source confirmation from someone with first-hand knowledge of the email. That means contacting the administration official who supposedly sent it. Or at the very least, the second source needs to be another person who received the email directly, rather than had it forwarded to them.

Another option for Onward state was to have sought comment from the Paterno family spokesman to verify the status of Paterno. This spokesman was established as a first-hand source and he should have been contacted.

Three phone calls or emails could have revealed this to be a hoax. We’re talking about maybe 15 or 20 minutes of work to reach out to those sources. Of course, Onward State would have had to sit on the news until they heard back from the family, the administration and/or football players. We already know the outcome of the alternative.

I’d argue the most challenging part of this story — and this is where Onward State fell down — is in determining which sources you can trust. Make the calls, send the emails. Talk to your colleagues about where you stand and what information you need to confirm and publish the story. Take a walk and wait for the responses.

You’ll end up with a better story or, at the very least, a better night’s sleep.

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