Misinformed Paterno tweets reflect media emphasis on immediacy

Joseph Diebold

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A misinformed report released by a Penn State University student publication has become a warning against rushing to report a story before it is confirmed.

Onward State, a news website run by Penn State students, sent two tweets at 8:45 p.m. EST Saturday night reporting that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died of lung cancer at 85, citing an email sent to the football team, which turned out to be a hoax. CBS Sports and the Huffington Post picked up the news. Soon afterwards, a spokesman for the family confirmed to The New York Times’ Mark Viera that Paterno was still alive. Onward State retracted its previous tweets, and the website’s managing editor, Devon Edwards, resigned.

Paterno’s family announced the former coach’s death Sunday morning.

Freshman Liz Bravacos, who is studying business at Penn State, said the Onward State report is indicative of a greater trend, in which news outlets prioritize immediacy over accuracy.

“It’s definitely a mark of the debate that’s going on in the media of being first versus being accurate,” Bravacos said. “It was a huge issue and it shouldn’t have happened, and I definitely think the desire to be first these days, it’s changed because of the technology that we’re using now.”

Bravacos said she thinks social networks put more pressure on journalists to be the first to report breaking news.

“I do think that it was a direct result of the new media and the way that we’re using things like Twitter and Facebook to get our news,” she said.

Medill Prof. Jeremy Gilbert disagreed with placing blame on social media but said journalists still have a responsibility to get their facts confirmed before publishing.

“I wouldn’t point fingers at Twitter and say Twitter makes journalists make mistakes,” he said. “Journalists have to be responsible for confirming facts, and it doesn’t matter how quickly you can publish.”

Gilbert cited the 1948 U.S. presidential election, after which the Chicago Tribune infamously ran the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” despite Harry Truman’s unexpected victory the previous night.

“This is a very old problem that’s playing out in very new mediums,” Gilbert said. “I don’t know that there is particularly more pressure (to report on news quickly) now. There’s just more ability for people to publish.”

Medill freshman Corey McMahon said he thought the national news outlets that ran with the story were also to blame for not verifying the story.

“I read the CBS report right when it came out and they didn’t attribute to anyone, and it’s only when it turned out to be not true that they decided that they were just re-reporting from Onward State,” McMahon said. “In a way that’s even worse, because had it been right they would have been piggybacking off someone else’s reporting without even verifying.”

Bravacos said although the initial reaction to Onward State’s mistaken report was negative, the publication has begun restoring its image.

“In the aftermath and following week (the reaction) has been positive because the editor stepped down, they have handled the situation really professionally, and students have seen Onward State kind of take responsibility for what happened,” she said. “At first people were very upset and now it’s much more supportive and understanding.”

Paterno was head coach at Penn State for 46 years and is the all-time Division I leader in coaching wins, with 409. He was fired in November for his failure to report alleged sex abuse by former assistant Jerry Sandusky to the police.

jdiebold@u.northwestern.edu

Editor’s note: This article incorrectly stated a student’s major. The article has been changed to reflect the correction. The Daily regrets the error.

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