False Joe Paterno death report: How can we be both fast and right?
There’s a way to avoid the terrible thing that happened Saturday, when Joe Paterno’s death was reported prematurely by many outlets, including Bleacher Report. Paterno did die Sunday, but not before members of the 85-year-old coaching legend’s family had to spend some of his final hours reacting to media reports that he had already passed away.
It’s almost becoming routine: The death of a major celebrity is reported on Twitter, and not long after, that report is retracted. Not dead yet, it turns out. Someone jumped too quickly and others, eager not to get left behind, followed suit.
It happened with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the aftermath of her shooting a year ago. It happened with Paterno. It will almost certainly happen again. It’s how the business works these days. In a world that moves, if not at the speed of light than at the speed of wireless communication plus the time it takes to type 140 characters, the need to be right stands little chance against the need to be fast.
But what if we could be fast and right? There is, frustratingly, a simple way to do that. It’s so simple, in fact, that you risk boring would-be media stars by talking about it. It’s so Journalism 101.
Until a day like Saturday happens. Then everyone’s suddenly interested in this mysterious skill that everyone already knows how to do. At least, we’re interested in it for a little while. Then we lose interest again and the whole thing starts over the next time a major public figure is near death.
Here’s the secret: Only report what you know to be true, and tell your audience how you know it.
That might sound like a set of handcuffs, especially for you philosophy majors out there. After all, how can we really know anything? Well, let’s look at what happened Saturday.
Here are two tick-tocks, told mostly through collected tweets, of the Paterno false death report, one from the Social Meditation blog and one from Jeff Sonderman at Poynter. I recommend you take a few minutes and read both to understand the timeline of Saturday’s events.
You’ll see that the report started at a Penn State student site called Onward State, which tweeted, “Our sources can now confirm: Joseph Vincent Paterno has passed away tonight at the age of 85.” A second tweet said that football players had received an email informing them of Paterno’s passing.
We know now that that report was wrong. Onward State would soon retract it and apologize. But what would we have known if we saw it the moment it appeared?
We’d know that Onward State, citing anonymous sources, was reporting Paterno’s death, and that there was no confirmation from either the university or Paterno’s family.
That can be a story. It’s not much to go on, because as of the moment when Onward State tweeted that report Saturday, most people around the country had never heard of it and knew nothing about its reliability. For all the vast majority of people knew, Onward State was one person sitting in a dorm room, with no accountability to anyone.
And since it was citing unnamed sources, the report called for extreme skepticism. Bleacher Report’s Attribution Guidelines leave room for some judgment, but reporting that a little-known campus website was citing anonymous sources to say on Twitter that Paterno had died, and that there had been no official confirmation, would have been reporting something you knew to be true and telling your audience how you knew it.
We can back up a step in the process and look at what Onward State did. Daniel Victor of ProPublica talked to the site’s co-founder and posted an excellent recap of that this morning on Poynter.org. But here’s the story in a nutshell: Onward State reported something it did not know to be true, and did not tell its audience how it got the information in the report.
That’s a pretty good recipe for getting it wrong. It won’t always be wrong. There were very early, lone-wolf reports that Michael Jackson had died before there was any confirmation, and those reports turned out to be correct. But if you want to get something wrong, this is a good way to do it: Report anonymously something you aren’t sure is true.
There are appropriate situations for journalists to use anonymous sources, though not nearly as many as some journalists would have you believe. Whistle-blowers and others who could be hurt by their identity being known sometimes warrant identity protection. Was there a compelling reason for Onward State to grant anonymity to its sources on this story?
I doubt it. Victor’s recap quotes Onward State’s co-founder, Davis Shafer, saying the decision to run with the story reflected “how ego can be a very toxic thing for a news organization.” Shafer told Victor that the site was fooled first by an email that turned out to be a fake—though Shafer says he doesn’t think it was intended to deceive Onward State—and then by a reporter who seemed to corroborate the existence of the email, but turned out to have been overstating his knowledge of the situation.
That’s what Shafer was referring to when he categorized the ego problem as “Ego to act like you know something you don’t, ego to want to be the first person to break it.”
By going with the story and not identifying where its information came from, the site left itself open to being embarrassingly wrong. It’s one thing to report that a particular person is saying something. It’s quite another to say that thing yourself. That’s what Onward State did by relying on anonymous sources: It said, “Trust us, this is true.”
A great illustration of that difference came in the next step of the process, when CBS Sports picked up the story. CBS is a venerable and trusted institution in the news business, and CBS reporting that Paterno was dead seemed to convince many other outlets it was OK to run with the story. Breaking News, the Huffington Post, SBNation, the Big Lead, Poynter and many others posted stories or tweets saying that Paterno had died.
Bleacher Report followed CBS too. The editors on duty Saturday were aware of the Onward State report and had held off, waiting for corroboration from a more reliable source or news outlet. CBS Sports picking up the news story seemed to be that corroboration.
But notice how CBS Sports reported the news. The story has since been modified, but here’s a screen shot from the Twitter feed of a Portland TV news producer named Tim Williams. Though CBS Sports clearly ran its story based on the Onward State report, it did not credit Onward State.
That is, rather than reporting what it knew and how it knew it—Penn State campus site Onward State had tweeted that Paterno was dead—CBS Sports reported something it did not know, and did not say where the information came from. Once again, a good recipe for getting it wrong.
And then look what CBS Sports did once the Paterno family emphatically denied the report within a half hour of its appearance, tweeting and telling New York Times reporter Mark Viera that Paterno was very sick but still alive. Viera tweeted that a family spokesman had called the report “Absolutely not true.”
At that point, CBS Sports updated its story with the new information—and an attribution for the death report, now evidently false, to Onward State. Interesting how eager CBS Sports was for its audience to know where the information came from once it was shown to be incorrect, an eagerness the site hadn’t displayed in its earlier report.
Let’s linger on that point for a moment because it’s very telling. When CBS Sports’ story was exposed as false, it became concerned that the audience know where the information came from. By having that concern earlier in the process, CBS might have saved itself some embarrassment.
If the source of CBS’s story had been a solid one, such as the Paterno family spokesman or one of Joe’s sons speaking on the record, there’s no doubt that source would have been identified in the story. Right in the lead, in fact. Since Onward State is clearly a public website publishing in the open, CBS wasn’t protecting anybody by hiding its source. It was signaling, perhaps subconsciously, that it didn’t quite trust that source.
But by not citing Onward State, CBS was essentially saying, “Trust us. This is true.” It was staking its reputation on a site it didn’t trust enough to identify the way it would a more solid source such as the Paterno family. That’s a terrible bet.
Here’s an important thing to think about in this type of situation: “What’s it going to look like if this information turns out to be false?”
In the case of the Paterno death report, for CBS Sports and everyone who trusted it, what it looked like was that we reported bad information. If we had reported that a Penn State website was tweeting that Paterno had died and citing only anonymous sources—what we knew to be true, and how we knew it—it would have looked like we were reporting that someone was saying something that turned out to be false.
That would have been a much better service to everyone’s readers, as well as to everyone’s credibility.
As producers of content we have to be honest. As consumers of it, we have to be skeptical. As you write, only report what you know to be true, and tell your audience how you know it. As you read, especially if you are preparing to write about what you’ve read, demand the same, and question anything that doesn’t live up to that standard.
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For further reading, here again are Bleacher Report’s Attribution Guidelines, B/R Copy Chief Dan Bonato’s posts about attribution and citing sources and about how to verify the sources you do use, and my post from a few weeks ago about linking to the source of your information.
Here are some apologies that appeared in the aftermath of the false report, from Onward State, from Breaking News, from CBS Sports and from SBNation. They are all worth reading if you’re interested in understanding how mistakes like this can happen. The transparency and openness in these statements is impressive. It wasn’t that long ago when media organizations were much more reluctant to own up to errors.
Photo: Patrick Smith, Getty Images