False Paterno death reports highlight journalists’ hunger for glory

January 22, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

As many people are now aware, on Saturday evening, a student news organization at Penn State reported that former football coach Joe Paterno had died. The information was picked up by CBS Sports and other major news outlets, and it spread quickly on Twitter. But it was wrong. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman has an excellent round up of the erroneous tweets, how they spread, and how they were debunked. (Paterno’s family announced his death on Sunday morning.)

Now, as always, we’re left with the aftermath. Two points stand out to me, and they both relate to the dangers of journalists chasing glory.

There’s no glory in being first

The tension between speed and accuracy is always highlighted in these cases. But more than that, I think this example highlights how the glory of being first is fleeting, and seeking it is a risky activity. Jim Brady put it well, “If you’re right and first, no one remembers. If you’re first and wrong, everyone remembers.”

That’s the same sentiment I expressed in a previous column.

Jay Rosen also had it right:

Journalists need to do a better job calculating the risk of being first, rather than focusing on the benefit. How many people would have recalled — or cared — that Onward State broke the news? Aside from some journalists, I’d wager very few people. This kind of breaking news report spreads quickly, and whatever credit that may have gone to Onward State in the early minutes would have disappeared once the information was confirmed and widespread.

“Nobody’s going to scroll through a zillion time stamps to say, Oh, this guy had it three minutes earlier!” tweeted Esquire and Grantland writer Chris Jones. “Readers remember the best story, not the first story.”

Save being first for real, enterprising scoops — the kind of work done by Sara Ganim of The Patriot-News to break the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

In contrast, the breaking news of the sort published by Onward State — and the traffic and retweets it brings — is just not worth it. The toll is too high in a connected world, and I hope journalists see this as a case for what Dan Gillmor calls slow news.

Our competitive drive and desire to break news needs to be applied in the right situations, and with the appropriate context and restraint.

There’s no glory in denying credit, failing to take responsibility for mistakes

One frustrating aspect of this story is that CBS Sports deemed the report from Onward State good enough to publish, but it was incredibly stingy about crediting the information initially. It seems CBS Sports wanted the glory for itself. For example, when it first passed on the Onward State report, it didn’t note the name of the publication in its tweet:

The initial CBS Sports story included a link to the tweet but did not credit Onward State by name. Huffington Post also later corrected its report about Paterno to note that it too failed to credit Onward State for the initial information.

So we have two major news outlets rushing to repeat the Onward State report, but not offering the appropriate credit. Poynter Online Director Julie Moos also tweeted a link to the CBS Sports story and did not mention Onward State or CBS.

Later, once the information was proven incorrect, CBS decided to mention Onward State by name:

No credit when Onward State had a scoop, but passing the buck when the student news organization got it wrong. People noticed this when they saw the above tweet from CBS Sports:

In addition, there’s also the important question of how news organizations handled the mistake.

Onward State was clear about its error on its website and on Twitter, and it apologized quickly. CBS Sports simply updated its story and did not add a correction or apology right away. Just before midnight last night, it did issue an apology from its managing editor:

Earlier Saturday night, CBSSports.com published an unsubstantiated report that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. That mistake was the result of a failure to verify the original report. CBSSports.com holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations.

CBSSports.com extends its profound and sincere apology to the Paterno family and the Penn State community during their difficult time.

To its credit, CBS Sports also placed the apology at the top of its story. MSNBC.com’s BreakingNews also issued an apology last last night.

Over at Onward State, the managing editor decided to step down on Saturday night, writing:

… I will be stepping down from my post as Managing Editor, effective immediately. I take full responsibility for the events that transpired tonight, and for the black mark upon the organization that I have caused.

I ask not for your forgiveness, but for your understanding. I am so very, very, sorry, and we at Onward State continue to pray for Coach Paterno.

Onward State will suffer the taint of this error for a long time, but they helped mitigate some of the damage by being fast and forthright with their reaction. CBS Sports seemed very slow by comparison, something that did not go unnoticed.

Earlier Saturday night, before CBS Sports had offered its apology, Carl Lavin tweeted:

My takeaway from this incident? Glory is overvalued by journalists, and it causes us to make terrible mistakes.

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