Death by Twitter

On Saturday, January 22, Onward State “killed” Joe Paterno. It took two tweets: The tweets have since been removed from Onward State’s feed.  The image above is a screen capture I took from Poyntner’s account of the incident. According to Poyntner, the timeline is as follows: (1) Onward State reports Joe Paterno’s death through twitter. The site subsequently goes down, apparently over flooded by incoming traffic. (2) 94.5 FM breaks the story on its own, but credits no sources. (3) CBS picks up the scent. They tweet a link to Joe Paterno’s obituary on their site.  It’s off to the races at that point, as the Huffington Post, Anderson Cooper, Poyntner, and Breaking News redistributed the story. What do all these sources have in common? None of them tried to confirm the reports before clicking the “tweet” button. Joe Paterno, as it turned out, was not dead yet. Paterno’s son and a spokesman for the Paterno family denied the story.

The question is, how could this happen? Shouldn’t professional journalists know better than to parrot anything from Twitter without checking?

Well, media do know better. As Eric Wemple points out, we should give “Bonus points for all the outlets that didn’t take the bait.” The AP wire, for one, did not take the bait because it couldn’t verify the original report. After all, when your source is Twitter chatter, you should be wary. Didn’t Jon Bon Jovi get the death by twitter treatment last December? As it turned out, Jeffrey Goho, a musician most of us had never even heard of before, started the rumor using Twitter. This time, established media outlets did nothing, that is, until Bon Jovi debunked the Goho’s hoax with a selfie.

So, what’s the difference between the Bon Jovi hoax and Paterno’s death by twitter? What made CBS hurry, when we all know that exaggerated rumors about celebrity deaths are a recurrent theme on twitter?

Here’s one possible answer: It’s all about the source. Granted, I’m not up to date on student run blogs. I had never heard about Onward State. This does not mean that the site isn’t a legitimate news source. Indeed, the site has been profiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Mashable as an up and coming student blog to watch. More ironically, though, US News and World Report described Onward State as being “as new as Joe Paterno is old.” Ouch!

But, what does this tell us about Onward State? It says that, up until the evening of Saturday, January 21 of 2012, Onward State was not seen as a little fringe blog. It was a little blog that could play with the big boys and girls of journalism. Unfortunately, today is January 22 and things have changed. Now, Onward State has become an example of how not to be a journalist.

My colleague, Andrea Duke, characterized Paterno’s death by twitter as one of those moments that remind us of the “whoops power of social media.”  She writes,  “You CANNOT report hearsay.  You CANNOT report assumptions.  You CANNOT report news that may or may not be true JUST to be the first to report it”

Yes, and this is also one of those moments in which we should reconsider how news is reported. We do rely on established news organizations to give us the facts, which means that we trust them to fact check. In this sense, Onward State is not the only outlet at fault. They made a huge mistake, and they have apologized profusely for it. In fact, Onward State has published two accounts of what happened, and how it happened. In one, the site’s founder, Davis Shaver, describes the controversy as “one of the worst moments of my entire life.” In the other one, managing editor Devon Edwards announces his resignation. He writes,

“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

By comparison, this is what Mark Swanson of CBS Sports had to say:

Really? One paragraph is all we get from CBS? That’s unfortunate, and it’s shameful. Sadly, I don’t think anyone expects Mark Swanson to step down as managing editor of CBSSports.com. Fortunately for him, the blame can be shifted to a student run blog, whose own managing editor admits he made a huge mistake.  Edwards writes, “getting it first often conflicts with getting it right.” What’s CBS’ excuse? Why were they more careful about reporting Peyton Manning’s alleged retirement (breaking news, according to Rob Lowe), than when they decided to run the Paterno story? An answer like, “because Paterno was actually dying, and Rob Lowe doesn’t have Manning on speed dial,” does not exempt a news organization from its duty to fact check

Getting it before CNN does not beat getting it right, or at least trying to get it right.

On Sunday, January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno did pass away. Last night’s odd turn of events has become a footnote to a long career. Yes, he had triumphs, and also scandal, but this post isn’t about Joe Paterno’s career. This post is about last night. Frankly, I could not help but think of other times news media has gotten it wrong. I thought about Dewey defeats Truman, but more importantly, this story reminded me of the 2000 election miscall. Four years after one of “the most egregious election-night gaffes in the modern television era,” television news anchors were more than cautious when calling the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.

That probably explains how the Washington Post used Twitter to announce Mr. Paterno’s real death this morning