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Getting It Right, Or Getting It First: How Joe Paterno's 'Death' Is Breaking The News

The culture of the news media is irreparably broken in 2012. With that basic premise out of the way, it's easy to see how such major mistakes in the field of "journalism" can continue to be made, despite our seemingly instant access to information. On a daily basis, someone in the media gets something wrong.

Chip Kelly is going to Tampa Bay. And then he isn't.

Les Miles is the next head coach of Penn State. But he's not.

Don't even get a Penn State fan started on the perceived inaccuracies the came in the wake of the initial Joe Paterno firing in November 2011.

But it's not a Penn State issue or a college football issue. It's a sports in general issue; it just so happens that Penn State was at the core of a recent, unforgivable drama in sports journalism. And it involves people you know.

Any piece of writing that seeks to hold those responsible for serious irresponsibility in journalism accountable for their actions must begin with a simple preface - these are still good men. These are peers, friends, and fellow sports fans that simply made a serious lapse in judgment. The two news outlets at the heart of this story have each issued apologies, with Onward State's Devon Edwards actually resigning from his post. They feel bad about what they've done. Unfortunately, that doesn't excuse what they've done.

The complex entanglement of today's news cycle and social media is a fickle beast. Much of the world's news is broken via a 140-character tweet, while analysis and follow-up via long form article happen later. From a Penn State standpoint, the news of every single commitment to the football recruiting Class of 2012 has been broken via Twitter. The same is almost certainly true at every other major football program.

And it's not just sports. Politicians, religious leaders, and pop culture icons routinely use social media to interact with fans and break news to audiences. The prototypical news media has been turned on its ear in the 21st century, and there isn't anything anyone can do about it.

As long as there is news to report, there will be inaccurate facts, false reports, and retractions. That's a simple fact that has been a part of media since the beginning, seen most famously in 1948 when the Chicago Tribune proclaimed New York Governor Thomas Dewey had bested actual winner Harry S. Truman in the 1948 Presidential election. Sixty-four years later, the media are still making mistakes with facts. But there is a big difference between wrongly proclaiming a President based on the reporting of an established Washington correspondent and announcing a man's death based on an email and a lying writer.

Fast forward to Saturday, January 21, 2012, where interested parties across the globe sat glued to their Twitter streams, eager to learn any more information after initial reports surfaced that Joe Paterno was in critical condition. Just after noon, I emailed a source to see if I could get any information on Joe's health, for both professional and personal reasons. There were rumors flying everywhere and I wanted to see if I could put some sense to what I was hearing.

Three hours later I first received word that Joe was in fact not doing well, but the source refuted the latest rumor that last rites were being given. Slightly relieved, I made the decision to take to Twitter and let people know that the recent rumors weren't entirely true, and that Joe was still battling.

Soon after, I received a couple of direct messages, as is the nature of inquisitive minds who want to know more. One of these was Devon Edwards, then-editor at Onward State. Devon is a good Internet friend with whom I've shared information before, and I didn't think twice when I engaged him in a private conversation about the situation.

Without divulging what Devon said to me, I did tell him what my source was saying and how credible I found this particular information. One line in particular that I shared with Devon stated as such: "Best not to be the first guy on something like this. If untrue, let someone else fall." What happened next would shape the future of social media, at least for Penn State and Onward State, for quite some time.

Around 5 pm, Onward State went live with information that Joe Paterno had been taken off of a respirator. At that time, I thought that information was false, but decided against trying to correct it. I would later find out that that information was actually true.

A couple of hours later, the bomb dropped, as Onward State announced that Joe Paterno had died at age 85. They followed this up with the announcement that football players had been informed via email of his passing. Within minutes, media outlets of all kinds were running with this story. A local radio station stopped their programming to announce Paterno's death, reporter Nate Mink reported the same information heard on the radio via Twitter, and then national media caught wind.

Relying on Onward State's report but without directly crediting the report, Adam Jacobi of CBS Sports made the national announcement of Paterno's death. The post has since been replaced with an explanation and apology of sort, as well as more accurate updates of events, but the damage had already been done at that point. Huffington Post caught wind of the CBS story and published their own story, again not crediting Onward State, and the inaccurate cat was out of the bag. Even our own blog, Black Shoe Diaries, momentarily changed the front page post to show a life and death date for Joe Paterno. Additionally, the main SBN page ran with the story. They have since issued a retraction and apology, with one particular sentence essentially summing up the entire problem:

The reports spread to numerous trusted sources, sparking our own decision to publish a post as a result. It was based not on our own reporting, but on the reporting of others.

At this point it is unclear if CBS and Huffington Post wanted to pass the news off as their own, or if they were not in the business of crediting their sources (SBN's original post did credit the Onward State tweets with the news). What is now known, though, is that all outlets were wrong.

Soon thereafter, just before 9 pm, Paterno family spokesperson Dan McGinn made the shocking announcement that Joe Paterno was in fact not dead, and was continuing his battle with lung cancer. But that couldn't be, could it? Three seemingly trustworthy news reports had told the world that Joe was dead, and the mourning process had already begun.

McGinn's news, though, was true. Joe's death wouldn't occur for another 12 hours, but Twitter and bad reports had already buried the man. The new social media coupled with irresponsible journalism had killed a man who was alive and breathing in a Mount Nittany Medical room. How could this happen?

Right around the time Devon Edwards and I were trading information, Edwards was receiving additional information from other sources. It was on this information that Edwards relied when he made the decision to publish and tell the world of Paterno's death. I had told him what I knew, he shared a bit with me, and I made the statement written above. Best not to be the first guy on something like this. But that's what Edwards was, first guy out of the gate with news that would shock the Penn State fanbase to its core, as well as send gasps across the country. So his information had to be solid. Why risk everything that the young news outlet had worked so hard for? If you're going to break a story like that, you better have watched the man die.

Unfortunately, sources aren't what they used to be. While I trusted mine enough to thank them for their information, I was in no way prepared to break any stories, especially since the information I was receiving was contradictory to Onward State's information. My source was directly connected to the inner Paterno circle; Edwards must have someone even deeper, I thought. Nope, wrong again.

As it turns out, the sources relied upon were unbelievably less than reputable. Two reporters with Onward State attested to the fact that a high ranking Penn State official had sent the current Penn State football team an email with the details of Paterno's death. One reporter said they spoke with someone who had seen the email, another claimed he or she knew of the emails' contents as well. It seemed the very existence of the email was enough for Edwards and Onward State, and with a click of the mouse, the death of Joe Paterno, based on at least one level of hearsay and a false email from a Penn State official, was announced.

The email was found to be a hoax, the origin of which is still unknown, as is the identity of the two reporters. The second reporter at Onward State, who had claimed to have heard similar information that was seen in the email, was later found to have embellished his or her story. And Onward State was reeling.

Soon after the McGinn news broke, CBS and Huffington Post, along with other media that had made the inaccurate announcement, retracted their statements, this time making sure to give proper credit to Onward State. Forty five minutes after their life-altering tweet, Onward State issued their official retraction and pseudo-explanation, also via Twitter. So where does the blame fall in this tragic mess?

It falls to Devon Edwards and the staff at Onward State. As non-traditional journalists, it is imperative that any news you are going to break be checked, fact checked, and checked again before going to press. In a world where everyone has a blog, a Twitter account, and access to a message board, news media isn't relegated to the NBCs and CNNs of the world anymore. And that's a good thing. But it's a responsibility we must bear with caution. This kind of shameful example of irresponsible journalism is exactly what gives the mainstream media the ammunition to attack "basement bloggers" and the new Twitter media.

It falls to Adam Jacobi and CBS sports, both for relying upon Onward State's erroneous reports without further research, and then not crediting them. CBS Sports found Onward State's report credible enough for him to attach their name to the announcement, but felt it wasn't enough for them to receive proper credit. What if Onward State had actually been right? Jacobi, a founding member and former writer for the Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants, should be one of the first people interested in giving credit to the smaller, non-traditional media outlets.

It falls to Huffington Post, the 3.5-million-follower @BreakingNews, SB Nation, and any other media outlet that ran with this story without doing their own fact checking, instead relying upon the uncorroborated story of CBS Sports. Even though by this point the damage was done, no one bothered to stop and question who or what Onward State was relying upon for its information.

News media in America is a different monster than it was in 1948. No one is announcing the 2012 Presidential election before the eastern states report, and when the states do report, you'll probably learn about it first on Twitter. Anderson Cooper will tweet the winner of Pennsylvania, then announce it on CNN, and then a CNN staffer will write an article about it later that night. It's just how media works in 2012.

The instantaneous news cycle thus requires some heightened responsibility, at least from those who wish to taken seriously within its realm. Anyone can get on a computer and start talking about head coaching searches and other information; but if a news outlet seeks to be a player in the established field, they better research, report, and react with journalistic professionalism. Seemingly everyone has "sources" these days (Penn Staters know this quite well, given the recent head coaching search), but before a news announcement is made, by either CBS or Onward State or Black Shoe Diaries, the reporter better be sure of their information. One bad story and a reputation is ruined.

(Ed. This article represents the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Black Shoe Diaries.)

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