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Lessons from false reports on Paterno’s death (and the problem is not Twitter)

Last week, I wrote about the dangers of breaking news on Twitter and the dangerous trend of not attributing the source of the information. My column involved how Indianapolis media reported the future of then Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell.

Initial Twitter missives, which didn’t cite where the information was coming from, said Caldwell would remain as the coach.  He was fired the next day.

Saturday night, it happened again. This time, it became a national embarrassment for CBS Sports and other national news organizations as they erroneously reported that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died.

By the time Paterno died at 9:25 a.m. on Sunday, a student editor had resigned, CBS had issued an apology, countless other websites had posted corrections and the Twitter universe was in full retaliation mode.

It is yet another lesson that in the race to be first, it is crucial to say where you got the information. I hope we are in a self-correcting phase where this dependency on one-source, unnamed stories passing as news will give way to tough questions about where the information originates.

It also raises questions about how news organizations have set up online blogs that can be posted to the world without any editorial or critical review.

Ironically, the one website and person who started the dissemination of the premature death of Paterno may have acted the most responsibly in this case.

It all started when the Penn State student website Onward State sent out this Tweet at 8:45 p.m.: “Our sources can now confirm: Joseph Vincent Paterno has passed away tonight at the age of 85.” (Here is a solid chronology of the false reports from Jeff Sonderman)

Shortly after that, CBS Sports tweeted (since deleted): “Joe Paterno has died at the age of 85.”

It included a link to its own story. To make matters worse, the CBS story did not did not cite any attribution. The only reference was an embedded link to the Onward State tweet. It appears someone at CBS Sports took the tweet as fact and posted a story on the Eye on College Football section of its site.

CBS Sports remade its home page to reflect Paterno’s death as fact, without reference to where the information came from (the image was posted by @ProducerMatthew, the deputy social media editor at Reuters).

From there, the news spread quickly.  Huffington Post apparently did to CBS Sports what CBS Sports did to Onward State, posting the information without saying where it came from (Huffington Post later posted a correction).

SB Nation posted its own version of the story, citing “multiple reports” (and naming none). Problem was the multiple reports were all based off the same initial erroneous report. Since no one attributed where they got the information, “multiple results” ensued. (As you will see below, few took responsibility; SB Nation’s Brian Floyd was an exception, with a candid, detailed explanation.)

Paterno’s family quickly came out to deny Joe Paterno was dead.

That’s when the students at Onward State handled things far differently than the national news organizations. The Twitter world noticed  – and took emphatic action.

CBS Sports updated its report – this time fully blaming Onward State for the error: Penn State student website Onward State has reported that Penn State players were notified of longtime head coach Joe Paterno‘s passing via email, and went on this report.”

CBS Sports refused to credit Onward State in its original news, when it thought Onward State was right, but had no hesitation to say where it got the information when it knew it was wrong.

Meanwhile, Onward State took full responsibility and its managing editor, Devon Edwards resigned in an emotional and eloquent note on Facebook.

Those following the developments on Twitter noticed and let CBS Sports have it:

@WesHuett: So, CBS doesn’t give credit to the source when it reports Joe Paterno’s death … but does so when it retracts the error? Shameful.

@WhitesideUSAT: Today’s lesson in Twitter journalism. Never a good idea to rely on an embedded link which cites unnamed source for story of such magnitude.

@ScottMonty: BREAKING: Joe Paterno is reporting the death of journalistic standards at CBS.

Long after Onward State retracted and apologized for its mistake and its managing editor resigned, CBS Sports finally apologized for its error. CBS Managing editor Mark Swanson issued a terse statement:Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) summed it up succinctly: “Twitter justice is severe and swift. Also check out #cbssportssays.”

“Earlier Saturday night, 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. holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations. extends its profound and sincere apology to the Paterno family and the Penn State community during their difficult time.”

While social media fueled the false report – and later lashed out at CBS – at the core this was an attribution issue and an indictment of the blog system set up and endorsed on media web sites.

CBS, Huffington Post and the countless others who, in essence, stole the erroneous Onward State report in their zeal to be first with the news, failed to source the information. And most of the errors apparently happened because one person can post and publish blogs on supposedly reliable news sites.

I do not think it’s a coincidence that SB Nation, which had an editor review a blog post, came out with the strongest and most candid apology and explanation.

Few news sites are offering any real explanations about what happened. There have been corrections and apologies, but news organizations that call on others to explain themselves and provide information are not providing much explanation in this case. Did anyone read the CBS Sports and Huffington Post items before they were published? Why wasn’t Onward State cited originally? Is there a policy not to credit other sites with breaking a story?

The Caldwell and Paterno mishaps have spurred a discussion about the role – and to some, the danger – of Twitter. Two days after my column last week, the Indianapolis Star’s Bob Kravitz weighed in on the issue after he was asked to chase actor Rob Lowe’s tweet that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will retire.

Among other things, Kravitz wrote: “From here on out, we need to agree Twitter is not the place where you write what you hear is going on; it’s where you write what you know is going on. And that standard must now be required not only for newspapers, but for radio people, TV types, bloggers . . . everybody.”

As I told him on Twitter, good luck with that.

Twitter is not the problem. The problem is the join-them-at-all-cost mentality that traditionally respected media seems to endorse when it comes to Twitter and social media. Beat reporters from CBS Sports to Indianapolis Star try to be one thing in print (objective reporters) and another thing on social media: sports personalities with opinions to share and need to be first with every nugget.

Craig Silverman summed it up very well on Sunday morning:

“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.”

The Twitter comments on all this back up Silverman and Jones:

@bpmoritz: The JoePa thing is not a Twitter problem. False reports of death have sadly happened before. Blame the sloppy journos, not the medium.

@GolfweekLavner: This Joe Paterno story is a perfect case study in the dangers of social-media journalism and the gotta-have-it-first mentality. Sad to see.

The Star’s Kravitz had no idea how right he was when he wrote this in his Friday column: “This week has been one giant teachable moment.”

What remains to be seen is whether anyone learned the lesson.

Ronnie Ramos is the managing director of digital communications for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter.

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