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Summary:

There’s been a lot of journalistic finger-wagging over a student website that filed an erroneous report on the weekend saying Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. But that student site behaved better than some other traditional news sources, both before and after the report.

Birdhouses
photo: See-ming Lee

There’s been a lot written already about how a student-run news website at Penn State issued an erroneous news report over the weekend saying legendary football coach Joe Paterno had died, with some critics of the event focusing on how a desire for the “glory” of being first can corrupt young journalists — especially those in the fast-moving, Wild West-type environment of the web, presumably. But there is more to this case than meets the eye: although Associated Press spent some time congratulating itself for not making the same mistake, the Penn State website behaved a lot better than some other traditional news outlets in this case, both before and after the mistake was discovered.

Jeff Sonderman at The Poynter Institute has a good rundown of how the events unfolded on Saturday evening, beginning with a report from the student site — a relatively new, web-only outlet called Onward State — both on its website and on Twitter, to the effect that Paterno had passed away at the age of 85. The news site said in a follow-up tweet that the report had come from anonymous sources, and that it was based on an email that was sent to members of the Penn State football team. This report was repeated on a local radio station, and then picked up by both CBS Sports and The Huffington Post  (as well as Poynter itself, SB Nation and many other news sites).

Getting it first vs. getting it right — not mutually exclusive

Within about an hour of the initial tweet from Onward State, a spokesman for the Paterno family had denied the report, and two of the football coach’s sons had also denied the news on their own personal Twitter accounts. Onward State quickly apologized for the error; the managing editor of the site resigned his position; and the news editor wrote a long blog post about how the false news report was “one of the worst moments of my entire life.” In his own post on the events, managing editor Devon Edwards said:

In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm.

In another Poynter post on the incident, Craig Silverman talked with the Associated Press, who said they managed to avoid repeating the erroneous report — as they did similar erroneous reports after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last year — because of an approach that stresses accuracy over speed. As one editor put it: “At every juncture we have a trigger point that says… are we going to make the decision to tell millions of people this?” As a result, AP refrained from publishing until it was able to reach the family, and then posted a tweet saying the report was untrue.

But despite the finger-wagging, Onward State isn’t just some traffic-juicing website that posted a fake news report without considering the impact, or a loose collection of bloggers with no editorial oversight. As ProPublica notes, while it is still new — and originally began as a simple community website for students — Onward State has editors and a process for verifying news reports, albeit one that failed in this particular case. But it put the report to a test, and discussed it among the senior editors, just as any other news outlet would do.

News as a process requires different skills, and one is transparency

As it turned out, the email sent to football players was apparently a hoax. Should the site have tried harder to verify the report before publishing it as confirmed? Obviously it should have, as the site’s editors have acknowledged. But I would argue the process Onward State went through before publishing wasn’t that different from the approach taken by Associated Press — and it was a lot better than the approach taken by either CBS Sports or The Huffington Post, both of whom ran the news without credit, and then only attributed it to Onward State after it turned out to be false.

I’ve argued before that the news occurs in different ways now than it used to; it’s no longer a packaged product that newspapers and TV stations create, but a process that involves Twitter reports and blog posts and video clips and all kinds of chaos. I think King Kaufman of The Bleacher Report made some great points in his blog post on the Paterno incident when he pointed out some of the key things news entities of all kinds have to do in such cases. One of the main ones is to be transparent about where news reports are coming from, and to be quick to verify or question them, in public (veteran journalist Carl Lavin also has a great perspective on the incident).

Based on that standard, I don’t think Onward State has much to feel bad about — yes, they rushed the news and got it wrong, due to a hoax. That’s a good lesson to learn. And perhaps the death of much-loved football coach isn’t the best choice for practicing “news as a process.” But they admitted their error quickly, and they didn’t just apologize (or correct the mistake on page 42 of their print edition) but explained in detail how it happened. That’s a lot more than we get from some traditional news sources, including the AP.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users See-ming Lee and Yan Arief Purwanto

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  1. What’s transparency:
    What’s up with the nytimes?

    “Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage,
    as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up.
    They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire
    people by the thousands. Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.
    The scaling process is no longer happening in the U.S. And as long as that’s the case, plowing capital
    into young companies that build their factories elsewhere will continue to yield a bad return in terms
    of American jobs.” Andy Grove July 1, 2010

    Shouldn’t the nytimes at least have includes a link in their populist piece How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work

    Somebody please do the nytimes job and interview Andy. If we agree with his conclusions how to fix the problem is a matter of discourse, but we should not ignore it.

  2. Craig Silverman Monday, January 23, 2012

    I wrote the Poynter piece that talked about journalists hunting for “glory” and just wanted to clarify: I didn’t specify that I was talking about young journalists. In fact, as Mathew notes, my piece spends most of its time looking at the failure of Huffington Post and CBS Sports to properly attribute the information to Onward State, and their failure to offer the kind of correction/apology given by Onward State. I agree their handling of the error was much better than the pros, and emphasized that in my post.

    When I talk about hunting for glory, it also applies to HuffPost and CBS, who both wanted to grab some of it for themselves by not crediting Onward State.

    I also wanted to note that I approached AP and asked to speak with someone about how they avoided the Giffords and Paterno errors. I wrote it as a case study of what I see as a good approach to instilling a culture that values verification. They had nothing negative to say about Onward State.

    As for how Onward state handled the information they received (the email), I think there’s a lesson here that’s very straightforward: the email looked legit, but there was no history of important Paterno news being sent out by email to football players. They also didn’t confirm the email with the person who purportedly sent it.

    The Paterno family also had a spokesperson who was dealing with the press on a regular basis. It was just a matter of emailing/calling that spokesman to check on the veracity of the email. Or contacting the university official listed on the email. Or finding a football player who could confirm having received it. We’re talking about a few phone calls and emails, which I’d argue are very much part of news as a process.

    The Onward State journalists — one of whom interned for me two summers ago, strangely enough — did a great job of owning up to their mistake. But I worry that people often come close to explaining away the misstep they made by talking about news a process. I wholly endorse that concept and help put it in practice every day at the Canadian new startup I helped start.

    I guess my point is this: news is absolutely a process, and verification is absolutely part of that process. There’s no reason to skimp on the latter just to help us get better at the former.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Craig — I think it was probably unfair of me to link that phrase to your post. I don’t mean to pin that whole viewpoint on you, because your post was much more in-depth and nuanced than that, and you made a bunch of great points. I saw other people echoing that sentiment, I just couldn’t come up with any tweets to link to, so your post had to do.

      I also think your AP piece was worthwhile, and didn’t mean to suggest otherwise — my comments about their view on new-media outlets and their skills is just my perception, not something I inferred from your post.

      And finally, you are quite right about the need for verification, and how Onward State fell down on the job in that department. I don’t want to minimize their mistake, I simply wanted to balance some of what I saw as criticism of them for being just another blog of traffic-hungry kids with no concern for journalism or the facts.

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. Cheers, Mathew. I hope my comment didn’t seem like I was upset. I actually didn’t see any tweets calling them traffic hungry kids, so wasn’t aware that had happened. If I had seen them, I too would have taken exception.

        As for AP, I know their PR director has made a habit of tweeting about the times they get it right when others get it wrong. And I know that has rubbed some folks the wrong way.

  3. Just wanted to weigh in on this, Craig and Matt. It’s important to keep in mind that we did have a process in place that covered a lot of the points you mentioned. The email our source received was faked to appear to be from a high-ranking Sports Information official, who very well could have been the point of contact for this release. The other point is that a second Onward State writer then claimed to have “confirmed” this by talking to a quite popular football player on campus, who had just moments before commented about Joe Paterno’s death on a local radio station (https://twitter.com/#!/OnwardState/status/160897498976751616). We later found out that the second writer was not honest in his information. Not knowing that, we considered that to be a two-sourced report, with both sources having received the email themselves. That all said, I agree 100% that our system failed here, and we have already begun work to add an additional layer of professional oversight and ethics training to the organization. This crisis, while grave in its effect on reader trust, will hopefully turn out to be a major step forward for Onward State in the long-run. Thanks again for your coverage.

  4. Joe Pa died a legend but he tarnished his image forever. Google “Daily Grind Sports” for a good take on the matter.

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