Twitter and Joe Paterno’s Death: A Lesson for the Individual Media Outlet

I certainly don’t want to step into the complicated web of “how do we remember Joe Paterno,” but the news of his death – unfounded last night, confirmed this morning – taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of thinking before you write or tweet.

I truly learned of Paterno’s death this morning, when a New York Times notification popped up on my phone, but the story really began yesterday.

Mid-afternoon, as I opened Twitter on my phone to tweet about the Oregon basketball win, I was shocked to see so many tweets about how Paterno’s family had been summoned to State College to say their final goodbyes. I hadn’t been following the story, or Paterno’s health, much since the news died down later in November, but I certainly didn’t know that his condition was so bad. Last week, I read the story from Sally Jenkins’ interview with Paterno – the first, and now last time he’d spoken since the scandal – but that was the most I’d read in weeks.

Yesterday evening, as I had TweetDeck open while watching TV, the tweets announcing Paterno’s death started to flood in. I wish I could remember where I first saw the news (I don’t follow @OnwardState, a student-run Penn State news outlet, which first tweeted that he had died), but within seconds my Twitter stream was filled with re-tweets of a CBSSports.com story which also claimed Paterno had passed.

Everyone started offering their 140-character eulogies and I started wondering if Dan Shulman, who was calling the Louisville-Pitt basketball game on ESPN at the time, would have to make his second on-air high-profile death announcement within a year. (They’re hardly in the same category, but last May, Shulman made the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast.)

He didn’t, though, because the report turned out to be false. Minutes after thousands of “RIP JoePa” tweets hit the Internet, Mark Viera of the New York Times tweeted that Paterno’s family spokesman said reports weren’t true. Pretty soon, my stream was a mix of “RIP JoePa” and “RT @markcviera…”

It was a confusing few minutes, but as consensus was reached that the news was false, several writers started offering journalism advice and  perspective on the situation. I didn’t perceive it as intentionally critical – most said something to the effect of “we all make mistakes” – but the sports fan’s relationship with Twitter, which is often “say something as dramatic and witty as possible as fast as you can” probably took precedence over what should have been objective, fact-based information sharing.

(For a detailed run-down of how the misinformation spread, including key tweets, take a look at this Poynter post.)

I’m as guilty as anyone here. I quickly re-tweeted someone who offered a brief “RIP JoePa/thoughts and prayers with the family” tweet. I re-tweeted another tweet which expressed sympathy for Joe Posnanski, the writer who was in the midst of a Paterno biography when all the scandal erupted.

The specific journalism lesson was “don’t run with it until the Associated Press reports it.” As the Poynter article points out, the AP wisely held off until they were absolutely sure Paterno had or had not died. They never reported false information, and look all the better for it today.

More generally, however, I learned a lesson regarding my responsibility, as an individual Twitter user, to dig into a story and make sure it’s correct before I hit the re-tweet button.

Twitter gives all of us – whether we’re paid to write about sports by a major media company or hacking away at our laptops on a college campus – the power to be our own media outlet. Usually, that’s awesome: We can say (or tweet) whatever we want, whether it’s rumors we heard from a friend, comments on a controversial column, or re-tweets of a solid piece of journalism. Wherever we set our computers or pull out our phones, we’ve constructed a mini press box.

Of course, my neck’s not on the line because I re-tweeted false news of Paterno’s death. But I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of double-checking and making sure your news is coming from a confirmed source.

Twitter is the place to be if you’re a sports fan. News, opinion, commentary and banter thrive there every day, but if users – even those who aren’t paid to get the story right – are blindly re-tweeting and taking everything a major outlet says as fact (“If CBS Sports said it, it must be true”), the value is lost.

It can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment. Every element of this story is magnified because of the circumstances under which it unraveled, but emotion can’t obstruct the facts, whether we’re a respected reporter or passionate fan.

*A couple related items:

Clay Travis of the blog Outkick the Coverage came down hard on CBS and its lack of responsibility in reporting. He points out (probably correctly) that had ESPN (which doesn’t have the greatest reputation among sports fans on Twitter) first reported the false news, Twitter would have filled with outrage. CBS, which has terrific college football coverage, looks bad in light of last night, but they definitely aren’t garnering the hate ESPN would have received.

I was intrigued last night by how some sports journalists dispensed relevant reporting advice via Twitter. I’m sure there are more examples (share them if you have some!), but two I found interesting were from Yahoo! college football writer Pat Forde

…as did Kelly Whiteside of USA Today.

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