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?
- Joe Paterno, Social Media, and Journalism: How CBS Ruined Their Online Brand In One Post (intelligentdesignsmedia.com)
- Boners BBQ, Papa John’s Need Crisis Coaching (spinsucks.com)
- Marketing, Journalism, and Truth as Competitive Advantage (businessesgrow.com)
- Learning From Big Social Media Blunders (businessesgrow.com)