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The Slippery Slope: Reporting Joe Paterno’s ‘Death’

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By Vivek Ramgopal on January 22, 2012

UPDATE: Joe Paterno has died, for real this time.

Journalism 101 — check your sources. This basic error cost a college student named Devon Edwards his job, and it should have cost others the same.

News reports on the death of Joe Paterno began to swirl last night at 8:45 ET after Onward State, a Penn State student-run website, ran a report that the former head football coach had died. It cited multiple unnamed sources. Sites like Huffington Post, MyFoxPhily.com, Bleacher Report and CBS Sports picked up the news and ran with it. All the related posts have since been updated or deleted — that’s because a family spokesperson denied the report: Joe Paterno is in “serious” condition, not dead.

The back and forth between Paterno’s family spokesperson and various news outlets reminded me of the Bring Out Your Dead scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Onward State report also set off a flurry of “RIP Joe Paterno” posts on Twitter and Facebook — just do a hashtag search for #RIPJoePa, #RIPJoePaterno and #RIPPaterno.

Around 10 pm, Onward State issued a retraction and apology to the Paterno family, stating that they “were confident when we ran with it, and are still trying to figure out where our process failed.”

Shortly thereafter, the managing editor, Devon Edwards expanded on the earlier apology and resigned. One part of his open letter that struck me was the line, “I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media.”

That sentence seems to imply that Edwards would have been completely content with his post had no other organization picked up the news. I’m reading that Edwards was taking a shot in the dark at being the first to report about Paterno’s death. Just like the social media Who-Dun-It around the breaking of Osama bin Laden‘s death, being the first would create a media blitz.

Mark Swanson of CBSSports.com also published an apology, but he will live to write another day. Shouldn’t leaders at major news outlets be accountable for running with an uncorroborated story? No offense to student/amateur journalists, but should the big boys be held to higher standards? Or should they be allowed to run with source-less stories and simply cite smaller sites?

In the summer of 2010, Washington Post columnist Mike Wise conducted a social media experiment and sent a fake tweet saying that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had been suspended five games for his sexual misconduct. As Wise predicted, it quickly spread online.

Wise immediately acknowledged that this was a misguided attempt to comment on the lowered standards for journalism. I don’t agree with what Wise did, but I do admire his intent.

While this did damper the trustworthiness of online journalism and social media, it won’t slow down the dissemination of unsubstantiated reports. Expect to see bad reporting like this once every few months.

Click Page 2 below to read Edwards’ letter of resignation…

Vivek Ramgopal is a sports junkie, native New Yorker, aspiring foodie, wannabe Top Chef, tech marketer by day, dad of two by night, squeezing in the world of sports when given the chance. Follow him on Twitter @VivekRamgopal and read his full HV archive here.

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