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.

College Football Weekend Recap: “The Pac-12 Sucks” Edition

Since there are so many people writing so many words about college football every weekend, I decided to aggregate some of my favorites in a handy little blog post (that I hope to publish every week this season). I’m doing this partly because I’d like to share what I found intriguing, but mostly because I’d like to hear from others about what articles or blog posts caught their eyes over the weekend.

One overarching theme: The Pac-12 sucks.

At least over the last few months, Pac-12 fans could point to Oregon’s appearance in the BCS title game as proof of our conference’s relevance, but when Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and Colorado all lose (and Washington and USC barely win), our defense against SEC fans is flimsy. It hurt to read, but The Register-Guard‘s George Schroeder spoke the truth about how Oregon’s loss only widened the gap between the Ducks and the truly great college football programs.

“If only the Pac-12’s football teams would start playing at a level befitting the conference’s newfound status,” wrote Stewart Mandel of SI.com, contrasting the league’s poor play with its recent status as a “destination” conference for teams looking to realign. Bruce Feldman, now of CBS after leaving ESPN post-“Free Bruce” movement, made a similar argument, saying that “Phil Knight’s favorite team was short-circuited on a big national stage once again.” Ouch.

Something decidedly more awesome than my favorite conference getting trashed all over the internet (albeit with good reason)? Rice University’s “Marching Owl Band” and the shot it took at Texas A&M‘s intention to move to the SEC. Definitely gives Script Ohio a run for its money as far as creativity is concerned. (But according to Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice, Rice will receive a letter of reprimand from ESPN for the stunt.)

It’s not directly related to this weekend’s action, but here’s an interesting piece from Lindsay Schnell, an Oregon beat writer for The Oregonian here in Portland (I followed her on Twitter before I really started reading her stuff in the paper, so I almost typed “@LindsayRae19” instead of her real name). While in Texas for Oregon-LSU, she dug into the emerging pipeline between high school stars in the state (a HS football hotbed) and the UO, which first sprung up when LaMichael James and Darron Thomas committed in 2008.

Lastly, I’m not as on top of the realignment talks as a good fan should be, but I do think it’s interesting/funny/fascinating that Mark Cuban (best known, obviously, for his appearance as Saturday’s College GameDay guest picker) felt the need to weigh in on the topic. His latest Blog Maverick post implores Big 12 teams to “say no to super conferences” and makes a slightly awkward Big 12-AL East comparison. Best part: the commenter who turns a football-centric post into a chance to whine about being an Orioles fan. “…I basically think we are screwed in the AL East.” Well, good for you.

Those are a few things that caught my eye. I know there are dozens, if not hundreds more pieces out there that were great, so if you read a particularly intriguing piece of college football writing this weekend, please share!