Sunday morning, former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno passed away at 85 years old, just months after the abuse scandal at the university ended his coaching career. Discerning Paterno’s ultimate legacy and weighing his remarkable career with its unfortunate ending can wait for another day, right now the Paterno family and Penn State campus should be supported with thoughts and prayers.
In the end, Paterno’s passing was another sad chapter in what has been one of the saddest sports stories of all-time at Penn State. It was hard to not see Paterno’s passing coming soon as his life was Penn State football. Many comparisons have been drawn to Bear Bryant, who died just a month after retiring. Back in 2008, announcer Brent Musburger, an admitted close friend of Paterno, foreshadowed the events that transpired.
But in yet another unfortunate series of events, Paterno’s death was erroneously reported on Saturday night – first by PSU site Onward State, then by CBS Sports, and by other subsequent entities. These reports of Paterno’s death were then denied less than 15 minutes later by a Paterno family spokesman and the story took several dramatic turns. Both Jay and Scott Paterno took to Twitter to tell the world that their father was still indeed alive. CBS tried to retreat from their original post as quickly as possible. The managing editor of Onward State apologized and resigned. And people were furious, confused, upset, and amazed at how the death of Joe Paterno could be wrongly reported and spread across the world. From the media perspective, it was a shocking development…
How the errant report of Paterno’s death caught on like wildfire can’t be broken down better than the folks at Poynter as they chronicled each step. (To clarify, this is from the Poynter website and not as their role in serving as ESPN Ombudsman.) How this story developed on Saturday is a direct reflection on how news is able to break much faster and spread more rapidly thanks to social media. Before the denial from the Paterno family spokesman, the Huffington Post and Breaking News Twitter feed had already reported the news to millions. Ten years ago, or even five, could a report from a student-run website be consumed by millions of people within a matter of minutes? While social media and the growth of non-traditional media have countless outstanding qualities, this is an inherent risk involved in having more sources breaking and reporting news faster and to more people than ever before. In digesting the significance of the errant Paterno report, it was not just about the initial report gone bad, but the aftermath as well.
The first point is obvious – Onward State made one of the most massive errors any media company can make in falsely reporting someone’s death. When your site is devoted to Penn State and that person is Joe Paterno, the mistake is exponentially greater. The website did the right thing by explaining everything that went into the decision to send the fateful tweet in an online post today and yes, incredible lapses in judgment were made across the board. The managing editor also apologized and resigned immediately last night. The student run website made an enormous mistake, but have handled the aftermath with dignity and much remorse.
Perhaps even more rage though was aimed at CBS Sports for their mistakes in the reporting. CBS ran with the report of Joe Paterno’s death in their initial article on Saturday night. However, they did not explicitly state the source of that report, Onward State. To many, the report appeared to be the work of CBS and that was an enormous factor in the erroneous report to spread even more abundantly. If an entity like CBS reports Paterno’s death, it should be true. However, when it became apparent CBS got it wrong, they then tried to deflect the blame on Onward State.
This was the worst error in a night of huge ones. Take a look at this screengrab sent to us by reader TlkSuperstation comparing the before and after of the original CBS story. Only after it appeared the reports of Paterno’s passing were untrue did CBS fully attribute the report to Onward State. This decision was unconsciable. If CBS wanted to take the credit for the initial report, they needed to stand by their actions. Instead, they ran and tried to hide behind a student website, who handled their mistake with much more integrity. A brief apology came hours later from CBS, but it seemed too little and too late considering the magnitude of what transpired. I’m sure CBS regrets their actions as much as the folks at Onward State and hopefully lessons are learned by media companies everywhere, especially considering the sensitivity of reporting a death, and especially that of a man like Joe Paterno.