In a rush to be first on Paterno, media wear red faces

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The tweets were like boomerangs Saturday night: Just as quickly as the first Twitter wave declared Joe Paterno dead, another round -- including tweets from his sons, Scott and Jay Paterno -- said he was still fighting for his life.

The iconic former Penn State University football coach died Sunday morning, but the confusion caused by the premature report of his death by the Penn State-based blog Onward State makes for a good lesson in responsible reporting -- and how quickly rumors can turn into news as newspapers, TV stations and websites all hustle to be first. Or at least not last.

"The rush to be first and to get all the glory is too hard to resist," said blogger and media watchdog Jim Romenesko. "It will happen again."

As mainstream news organizations increasingly rely on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to gather information and publish and broadcast it, they find themselves awash in tweets and posts and texts, often sent with little consideration of the consequences. Traditionally, a news reporter was required to confirm information with at least three informed, trustworthy, identified sources before publishing or broadcasting a report.

The initial, false tweet from Onward State -- a student-run blog not officially associated with the university -- shortly after 8 p.m. soon was picked up and repeated by a CBS sports blog. That report was cited minutes later by The Washington Post, The Poynter Institute, The Huffington Post and other major media outlets from around the country.

Mr. Romenesko compared the initial news of Mr. Paterno's death to the false reports that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was dead after a January 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz.

Curt Chandler, a multimedia journalism professor at Penn State and a former Post-Gazette editor, said that Onward State "made a big mistake," but not as big as the major news outlets that picked up a tweet from a student news blog and ran with it as fact.

"I think it's a much bigger mistake if you're CBS and you do this than if you're Onward State and you're just a student trying to compete with the big dogs," Mr. Chandler said.

"It says a lot that CBS did not credit Onward State with breaking the story until they realized there was an error, then they were willing to blame the student outlet for it," he said.

Mr. Chandler added that he thought Onward State acted appropriately after it realized the mistake.

"To their credit, I think Onward State was very transparent about what happened," he said. "They were very honest with their audience that they had screwed up."

Mr. Romenesko agreed, noting how quickly Onward State managing editor Devon Edwards posted his resignation.

"I think he no doubt gained points for that," he said.

Mr. Edwards said in an email that he wasn't going to comment on the tweet he sent Saturday night. Onward State's editor-at-large, Davis Shaver, did not return a call seeking comment.

Mr. Edwards did, however, apologize to readers in a post on www.onwardstate.com .

"I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media," Mr. Edwards wrote. "Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead [sic] you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did."

As quickly as it happened, the false report vaporized on Sunday, as online attention shifted to Paterno-related condolences, comments and criticism flooding the Twitter universe.

Mr. Paterno died at 9:25 a.m. Sunday of lung cancer at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College. He was 85.

His family published a statement giving more details and thanking Penn State alumni and fans for their support, and asking for privacy. On Twitter, politicians and football coaches and university officials from around the country offered their condolences. Thousands of fans and casual observers offered their 140-character comments, from heartfelt expressions of loss to musings about Mr. Paterno's complicated legacy to cruel jokes about his death.

All of it was tweeted and retweeted at an explosive pace throughout the day, from a few dozen posts referring to Mr. Paterno in the hour following his death, to hundreds of new comments posted every minute or so by early afternoon.

"Joe Paterno died of a broken heart," Purdue University cornerback Ricardo Allen tweeted Sunday afternoon. "They took his one and only love always from him and that was penn state football. #RIP."


Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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