Social Media, Journalism, and the Death of Joe Paterno

by Ken Mueller on January 23, 2012 · 43 comments

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There has been a lot of conversation, particularly on Twitter, regarding the events of this past weekend, as journalists, social media practitioners, and the general public try to figure out what went wrong. Part of the discussion surrounded whether or not this was a primarily a journalism failure or a social media failure. As a former journalist, and someone who works with social media, this is of great interest to me.

There’s a very nice timeline of how this all went down at Poynter.org, but to sum up the events, a report was issued Saturday evening stating that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was near death. At the time I received a text message from ESPN delivering that news. Not surprisingly, when a statement like that is issued, the rumors begin to swirl.  That’s when things began to get out of hand.

An award-winning online student publication, Onward State, reported Paterno’s death. Shortly before 9 p.m., CBSSports.com picked up on this and also reported that Paterno had died. Other news organizations followed suit.

Also not surprisingly, the story began to make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. After all, a legitimate news reporting organization had reported it. The only problem was, it wasn’t true. The New York Times and CNN were fairly quick to report that the Paterno family was denying his passing. Eventually, both Onward State and  CBS issued apologies and rightly took the blame on themselves. The managing editor of Onward State even stepped down from his position. As for how Onward State received and reported on the erroneous information, you can read their own explanation which shows that even when safeguards are in place, sometimes they aren’t enough. They thought they had the correct information from multiple sources and went with it. Here is a short segment from that explanation:

But at around 8:00 p.m., one of our writers posted that he had received word from a source that Joe Paterno had died. The source had been forwarded an email ostensibly sent from a high-ranking athletics official (later found to be a hoax) to Penn State athletes with information of Paterno’s passing. A second writer — whom we later found out had not been honest in his information — confirmed to us that the email had been sent to football players. With two independent confirmations of an email announcing his death, managing editor Devon Edwards was confident in the story and hit send on the tweet we had written, informing the world that Joe Paterno had died.

Then shortly before 10:30 a.m. yesterday (Sunday) morning, the Paterno family issued a statement saying Paterno had died. This time the report came directly from the family, and sadly was true.

So what are we to make of this? What takeaways are there for us, regardless of our role? How has social media changed the role of journalism? Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • First and foremost this is a failure of journalism, before it is a failure of social media. As general consumers of the news, while we have become cynical, we have also been conditioned to trust legitimate news agencies when stories like this are reported. It’s one thing for me to tweet something, and another thing for legitimate news organizations to tweet reports about that same story.
  • Having worked in fast-paced newsrooms myself, I understand how this happens. I understand the pressure to compete. Most media has a deadline, a time by which the newspaper must go to print, or the newscast has to go on the air. But the Internet is more like all-news radio where every second is a deadline. This is a major shift for traditional media.
  • We also need to understand that the online realm is where most news is broken these days, whether on SM or on the websites of legitimate news organizations. This isn’t going to change. While a newspaper might have a print deadline, and only publish once per day, they can update the news constantly via their online properties. The Internet levels the playing field.
  • Editing and fact checking have been among the biggest losers in this economy as news organizations, particularly print, scale back as they seek to stay afloat in an environment of change. This is a problem. Old media needs to learn how to compete in the digital realm while maintaining both objectivity and high journalistic standards. Accuracy should never be sacrificed at the expense of breaking a story.

I would posit that in a world where consumers get their news from a wider variety of sources than ever, where many stories are broken via social channels, and where the difference between being first or not is only a matter of seconds, that the concept of breaking a story, particularly of this nature, is less important than ever.

For the most part, the general public doesn’t remember, or even care, who breaks a story. Being able to say you were first is merely a matter of pride in most cases, and we all know what they say about pride. If you tweet a story out ten seconds before your competitor, does it really matter?

Journalists need to understand that despite the increased competition, and despite the speed at which news travels these days, accuracy always trumps competition. And this isn’t new. This is Journalism 101: do your homework, know your sources, and fact check.

Mistakes happen. Even the most prestigious of news organizations, like the New York Times, have been caught with their pants down. And this will only become more of a problem in the digital realm. This isn’t going away.

Fortunately, the social web is incredibly self-correcting. While rumors can erupt online, they are generally corrected almost as rapidly. This doesn’t excuse the dissemination of false, or unverified information, but it is comforting. This is a new world. While not everyone is trained as a journalist, everyone has the ability to be a journalist. Citizen journalism is here to stay. Media outlets need to understand this and work out for themselves how they will both tap into this and compete.

For those of us who navigate the social realm, both professionally and personally, we need to be careful. We need to watch what we say and how we say it. Speculation can be a very dangerous thing. We think out loud. We speculate in our own little circles. When I first received the text about Paterno being “near death”, I began to speculate with my family and others around me. But we need to remember that thinking out loud and speculating via Twitter and Facebook has its own set of issues. For many, there is an assumption that if you see something online, it must be true. Clearly, this is a false assumption. We need to cultivate a healthy dose of cynicism. Which in turn creates a greater problem for legitimate news organizations. It’s a potential crisis of credibility.

The “whisper down the lane” effect combined with the scope and speed of platforms like Twitter can cause a lot of damage. I believe that this will be the source of all sorts of legal action in the years to come as we speak our minds online. We need to learn how to filter ourselves better.

In the end, this is the world in which we live, and it’s only going to get faster. We all bear a responsibility. And yet this responsibility is really no greater than before. For journalists, the responsibility is the same as it has always been: report the news in a timely and accurate fashion. Pick up any journalism text or read the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists. This is merely a wake up call. Journalists need to do what they’ve always presumably done: strive for excellence, while navigating the rough terrain of the Internet. The platforms and media may change, but the core principals must remain the same.

And journalists aren’t alone. This is the lesson that all businesses and organizations must learn: stick to your core principals while adapting to a new, digital world. Those that do this well are more likely to succeed.

What are your thoughts? Is this a failure of journalism, social media, or both? How does the presence of Social Media change how you conduct yourself and your business?

 

 

 Social Media, Journalism, and the Death of Joe Paterno
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39 comments
RandyGreene
RandyGreene

I agree with some other posters, in that I can forgive the Onward State editors for their errors - it sounds like they were straight-up lied to. And maybe I'm wrong for doing this, but I tend to hold student-run newspapers to a somewhat lower standard than national news agencies.

CBS Sports, on the other hand, should be legitimately ashamed of themselves. They should know better than to publish a story (especially a headliner like this!) without verifying their facts.

joshdbrett
joshdbrett

@pr_in_pink Thanks. I thought about doing a blog post on this, but I already did a similar one on the Gabi Giffords shooting.

Krista
Krista

Sorry I'm a little late to the discussion, Ken-- there isn't much more I would add that hasn't already been articulated by the other smart folks in this discussion. Just want to add my praise for a well-thought-out post!

Anthony_Rodriguez
Anthony_Rodriguez

When I saw people announcing Paterno's death before it happened, I quickly found out it was not true. It looks like Onward State tried to do its due diligence to confirm the passing but was straight out lied to. I can forgive them for that. But as a former journalist myself, what I can't forgive is the so-called professional media taking the PSU student paper's report as gospel and reporting it without confirming it for themselves. That's Journalism 101. If someone tells you someone said something, you confirm that something directly with the someone who supposedly said it.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

This happens all the time. Someone jumps a story it makes rounds then retraction then it winds up true and everyone rushes to release the news.

Great post Ken. I am amazed at how this happened yet also sad because I mean the fact the sports world and journalism world were all rushing around to break that Joe P died first shows how shallow our society has become. Accuracy is most important because while breaking news is breaking...99% of our news consumption is non-breaking news and that is where the money is made. And you go to sources you trust for that stuff.

I blame Mark Zuckerberg of course for the state of American shallowness. 8)

BTW @bdorman264 i heard is now working for TMZ and following the Lindsay Lohan story

bdorman264
bdorman264

And journalists aren’t alone. This is the lesson that all businesses and organizations must learn: stick to your core principals while adapting to a new, digital world. Those that do this well are more likely to succeed. This is what I believe; stick to your core principals; it is never the wrong time to do the right thing.

Even though he was near death and they jumped the gun, it was irresponsible and we still shouldn't tolerate this type of journalism or information dissemination.

Well written sir.

@Quartz164
@Quartz164

Very nice post Ken. The Joe Paterno death reports have once again brought attention to a very controversial topic and one I've been following for quite some time, journalism vs bloggers. Social media platforms, blogs and video cameras have turned everyone into i-reporters.

This is especially true in sports. Hundreds of thousands of fans perceive themselves as sports journalists because they have a blog covering their favorite team. To make matters worse, teams are issuing official "media" credentials to these bloggers to increase coverage and interest. The line between blogger and journalist gets extremely blurry not only in sports, but all industries. The competition for eyeballs, readers, fans, followers and subscibers is stiff and people are looking beyond traditional media for news. This has these outlets in a bit of a panic and they are trying to compete.

Following is an interesting story about a court case on this issue. http://mashable.com/2011/12/07/blogger-vs-journalist/

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

Excellent, excellent post, Ken. I was looking forward to this and you delivered! Too true. Accuracy beats speed. As you have pointed out and is the case with any company I work with, I caution them to proceed with accuracy and with caution. We don't always have to be the first one in to accomplish our objectives. In this era of "newsjacking" and being the one to tip the story towards your angle, we must be very careful in the way we go about doing it. Again, really good post, Ken!

mdyoder
mdyoder

Excellent post, Ken. I think the "legitimate" news sources should only be using tweets, Facebook updates, etc as a source of leads, not for facts. As you so eloquently pointed out, they still need to do their homework when it comes to fact checking and getting the story right. I wish news channels would quit worrying about getting there first as if that's what matters most.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

It's funny because I get asked about this every time I speak. "What news do we believe?" Unfortunately it's still the wild, wild west and we have to confirm things before we believe them. I always use the example of when Bin Laden was killed. The news was reporting President Obama was going to have a news conference and wouldn't speculate what it was about. But it was all over the social networks. So the news began to say, "We can't speculate, but reports on Twitter are that Bin Laden has been captured." To @belllindsay 's point, they don't want to be left behind, but they also have to maintain their ethics.

BestRoofer
BestRoofer

Good timely post Ken. I appreciate the explanation and really hate to have to question everything that I read, but some things change very slowly. What I think is even more of an issue for me is the way that the "media" treated this great man in his last year.

belllindsay
belllindsay

As an ex hack myself, I agree 100% with what you've written here. It is *vital* that in this time of brain numbingly rapid change that the 'old dogs' not forget what made them so great (and for the most part, trusted) in the first place. Social/schmoshal - what should NEVER change are the basic fundamentals of reporting - as you said, fact check, know your sources, then goddammit fact check *again*!! Yes, mistakes happen - they've always happened - but leaning on the social media crutch as your excuse is unacceptable.

socialmediabham
socialmediabham

@joemanna I was south of them, barely. Many of the places that were hit are places I knew very well...

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@bdorman264 Thanks, Bill. And that's the point, We need to adapt and adapt well. Too many businesses either approach the digital realm from their old-school mindset, or they change altogether. Neither of those is the best option.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@@Quartz164 It is interesting. Even as a former journalist, I'm OK with this kind of competition. I know in some cases that there are bloggers who are better than the "official" journalists, because they aren't afraid of ticking people off, or are able to go more in depth, or even have better sources. While we can't accept everyone as a journalist, I think we may have to let the market dictate what goes on, as we as consumers make our decisions.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@EricaAllison Thanks, Erica. There are so many fine lines and subtle issues involved with this that there is no one size fits all answer. Every situation is going to be different.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@mdyoder Very valid point. There is a difference between leads and actual facts. Things that happen on social media might end up being a great source of facts, but only after we check them. Until then, we need to treat them merely as leads.

casalupoli
casalupoli

@kmueller62 You are welcome - thanks for reminding readers of the true goal of *any* media: accuracy.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@ginidietrich@belllindsay That's exactly it. The competition is greater than ever, because we are all journalists, particularly when we are "on location" as part of a story (earthquakes, etc), but we are also news sources. The vetting process is much more difficult.

I think, that because of the self-correcting nature of this, we are going to see people turning more to the social web for news than to the traditional outlets. i think we desire others to curate what's happening and certainly there are dangers there. If I were in grad school now, this would be an amazing thesis topic.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@BestRoofer Well it was certainly a rough year, that's for sure. One of the things that is happening is that we have to redefine what is meant by "media" or "news media". It's an entirely new landscape.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@belllindsay Journalists of all stripes need to be held to the same strong standards. Period. And social is now part of the equation that can both help and hurt them. It all depends on their approach.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@KenMueller@belllindsay I think that already happens, but it's rare that we don't confirm what we learn on the social networks with something more reliable. You've seen this over and over and over again. When Natasha Richardson died, it was "reported" on Twitter four days (FOUR) before it was announced by her family. So we all waited around to hear the inevitable.

JoeManna
JoeManna

@socialmediabham Don't be afraid to break the rules and social norms. Be a leader among peers in understanding and leveraging new media.

JoeManna
JoeManna

@socialmediabham Be accountable for the content you create. It will be an asset you carry around with you forever. Even if it's bad.

KadeDworkin
KadeDworkin

@socialmediabham Unsolicited but hey: College students should start to study the difference between personal & business use of social media.

socialmediabham
socialmediabham

@joemanna I'll be talking to college kids today about why Social Media is vital to their careers - Any last minute suggestions?

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