Joe Paterno’s death and the reality of news as a process

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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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