For any of you who watch the news, open a newspaper, or open up an internet browser, you know that long-time Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, passed away last week after losing his battle with lung cancer. For my readers on Twitter, you know that news happens fast. So fast on this particular day, that Onward State (@onwardstate), a news source at Penn State, reported that Joe Paterno had died, even though he had not. They had heard from CBS and a few other shaky sources that the football legend had died and reported it in a tweet.
They had made a fatal mistake, however, in reporting the death of a legend. Last week in my media ethics class, a writer for the New York Times and Penn State alum, Mark Viera (@markcviera) came to talk to my class about ethics class about Twitter and the death of Joe Paterno. Even though Onward State had some leads that Joe had died, they didn’t have a concrete answer. And since they tweeted about it first, they obviously didn’t know that you should be correct more often than first, especially in something as profound as the death of a well-known person. Viera went on to explain how Twitter has changed journalism, not only with the advent of everyone having a smart phone and being able to live tweet everything, but how it has made news happen minute by minute, or in this case, millisecond by millisecond. Viera went on to explain how now in the news world it has become common practice to make sure you have the right information before sending it out to social networking sites the second breaking news seemingly happens. Tweets and Facebook posts must go out fast when a story breaks, so sometimes they aren’t subject to the scrupulous editing process that news articles for magazines, newspapers, and online news sites often are. Because of the false reporting, Devon Edwards (@devon2012), managing editor of Onward State at the time, wrote a letter to the public apologizing for his swift actions in the reporting of Joe Paterno’s death. He resigned his post as managing editor after this incident, but remains a writer for the news source. Viera agrees with Edward’s actions, and is glad that someone stepped up and took responsibility for this millisecond mistake.
Regardless of mistakes made on social networking sites, the Penn State community will always grieve for the loss of an educator, coach and humanitarian. Rest in peace, Joseph Vincent Paterno. We will always remember all that you have done for the university and for us.