It is unlikely Pope Benedict XVI was paying attention at 8:45 p.m. EST Saturday when the web site Onward State reported that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. First off, it was 2:45 a.m. Vatican time. Secondly, the Pontiff is probably a Notre Dame fan.
But Tuesday, the Pope weighed in with his feelings about Twitter, giving us the closest thing to an ultimate arbitrator on the social media phenomenon that we have seen to this point. The Pope, who is the first head of the Catholic Church to tweet – although we can’t be sure whether he is actually sending out 140-character epistles through the Vatican’s site – was philosophical in his warning about the dangers of the medium.
“In concise phrases, often no longer than a verse from the Bible, profound thoughts can be communicated, as long as those taking part in the conversation do not neglect to cultivate their own inner lives.”
In other words, it’s important to communicate one’s thoughts but equally vital to devote some time to listening. That’s some pretty sage advice, the kind CBS Sports, Huffington Post, and most especially Onward State, could have used Saturday night during the 12-minute burst of inaccuracy that characterized the “news cycle” surrounding incorrect reports about Paterno’s passing and the family’s subsequent revelation that the coach was still alive.
Shoddy reporting was indeed to blame for the erroneous news broadcasts; Twitter served as the rocket ship that brought it to a wide audience and spawned its exponential growth. I’m not blaming the messenger, but I am saying that it’s time the media treated Twitter the same way it does the printed page, television, radio and more established modes of disseminating information.
Last week, when Indianapolis media tried to get it right about the fate of Colts coach Jim Caldwell, someone described Twitter as a “conversation.” Saturday proved that is no longer the case. Twitter is now every bit the conventional delivery system as a newspaper. If we are going to acknowledge that the media landscape is changing, and old ways are losing traction, we must begin to hold the newer methods to the same standards that we expected from their predecessors.
That means reports can’t be based on unnamed, vague “sources,” who could be anyone from the custodian at a school to the executive assistant at a professional team. It means that anything sent out to the masses, whether in 140 characters or 20 copy inches, must be checked, re-checked and subject to the same kind of rigor that one would find in a newspaper, TV report or even on-line site (most of the time).
There must be an end put to the rationalizing away poor reporting. Just because we are in a 24-hour news cycle doesn’t mean accuracy is impossible. Finishing first is great, but if you’re wrong, what good does it do? Worse, by being wrong in this age, the word can go out much faster and to a broader audience than ever before.
Simply put, it must end. Since Pope Benedict is not about to wade into the journalistic world, there must be an industry-wide commitment to getting it right. Everyone, from Rob Lowe to the smallest online site to the well-established giants of the field, has to understand what is at stake. It is nothing more than the overall credibility of the media. Never before has the ancient maxim “Haste makes waste” been more appropriate. A continued neglect of the principles and fundamentals that have governed the profession for decades (for the most part) will lead to a complete erosion of the trust between those who present the news and those who consume it.
Fortunately, we have a template for this challenge, and it comes from one of the more respected entities in the field. As reports broke of Paterno’s death Saturday night, the Associated Press refrained from entering the fray. Falling back on its established “conditions for accuracy,” the AP resisted the need to be first. In fact, the organization weighed the benefits of leading the pack against the risks of being wrong and decided to be judicious, rather than just fast.
Associate Managing Editor Ted Anthony, speaking to Poynter, summed up the situation perfectly. Speaking about the thought process he and AP deputy west editor Josh Hoffner had employed a year ago when reports surfaced the U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords had died and how it applied to the Paterno story, Anthony said, “We both agreed, again like [Saturday] night, with something this high stakes, we would rather be behind and be right than be ahead and be wrong.”
That’s it. Few people remember who breaks the story first. They remember the story. But they will most definitely be able to recall who got it wrong. Onward State may have been trying to gain some notice by being first with the Paterno news, but it certainly wasn’t trying to gain the kind of notoriety it received for being wrong. CBS Sports was absolutely trying to garner recognition when it piggybacked Onward State and “reported” the event – without giving credit to the State College site. The breadth of the damage done to CBS Sports was obvious Tuesday when it reported that Detroit had signed slugger Prince Fielder to a nine-year contract, and many were skeptical. Someone even created a fake Twitter account of the reporter who broke the story, just to create more doubt.
Since there exists no tribunal to issue edicts on how journalists behave, we can’t expect an orderly set of rules to be agreed upon that govern this situation. But the industry should understand the need for accuracy in every format and understand that changing times imbue new technologies with the same responsibilities as their predecessors.
In the end, had Onward State and CBS Sports heeded the Pontiff’s tweet and listened a little more, all of this would have been avoided.
Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.