Suddenly, my Facebook news feed was filled with about 15 variations of “R.I.P. Joe Paterno.” As it would with any journalist, my curiosity piqued and I began hunting down articles to verify the Facebook rumors. But I couldn’t.
Because he wasn’t dead yet. Paterno, according to an Associated Press report, died Sunday, Jan. 22 at 9:25 a.m.
But that didn’t stop Onward State, an independent newspaper at Penn State, CBS Sports or People magazine to inaccurately report the information.
Around 8 p.m. on Saturday, Onward State tweeted that Paterno had passed–it was already known that he, who was previously diagnosed with lung cancer, was in serious condition in the hospital.
Paterno announced his diagnosis in November, shortly after his tenure as head football coach ended due to the scandal involving Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky, Paterno’s former assistant, was accused of sexually assaulting young boys, including a 10-year-old in the locker room shower. Paterno was accused of not taking enough action to inform authorities of the situation, and left the university under pressure from the Board of Trustees.
Following the Onward State reports, CBS Sports posted an article at 8:47 p.m. announcing the death of the former football coach.
And, the cherry on top of it all, People had his obituary posted before 10 p.m.
Following the rush of Twitter updates and Facebook statuses, the Paterno family spokesman and Paterno’s two sons denied the rumors.
In a rush to be the first news source to break the story, these publications suffered embarrassing repercussions from not verifying their information.
The Onward State managing editor, Devon Edwards, wrote a retraction of their reports, along with a humble apology and resignation of his position.
“In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm,” Edwards wrote. “All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility.”
But worse than the initial mistake, some of the larger news organizations didn’t acknowledge they made one.
CBS Sports, in lieu of an apology, simply reported that Onward State had misreported the story, and informed readers that Paterno was not in fact dead at the time of publication.
People magazine covered their tracks, and the obituary on their website now states that it was posted at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
This tragic situation was made worse by sloppy reporting, not only by the student reporters, but by major news organizations as well. Yes, journalists make mistakes. But the biggest mistake one can make is to not take responsibility for their actions and try to pretend like it never happened.
Onward State, though the most junior of the publications, showed a tremendous amount of integrity and remorse with their statement, while CBS and People looked like cowards out to break a story first.
A retraction does not equal an apology, particularly in a matter as sensitive as this.
Unfortunately, in the media age, time stamps can be manipulated and articles can be pulled, thus instilling an incredible amount of trust in these organizations by the readers. But if we can’t trust them to get a story as big as this right, can we ever?