Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Race to be First: Social Media's Slippery News Slope

There are lessons we all can learn from the handling of information concerning the death of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.  Coach Paterno died on Sunday morning following a two-month battle with lung cancer.  Unfortunately, several news organizations prematurely reported Paterno's passing on Saturday night based, ultimately, on unconfirmed information first posted by a student media website on the Penn State campus.

Onward State claimed it had multiple sources who confirmed Coach Paterno's death and posted the news online around 8:45 pm Saturday.  CBS Sports gave the story viral life by posting a Paterno obituary on its website, seemingly based on information from the Onward State post.

Many organizations and individuals followed suit, tweeting and re-tweeting links to the CBS story on Twitter and posting on Facebook.  (I'm guilty of both.)  Here in Columbia, the mis-information found its way into coverage of the GOP primary as news anchors paused to announce the "breaking news" that Joe Paterno had died.  In all cases, ti would seem that everyone trusted (assumed) that CBS had vetted the information and that it was accurate.  We learned how wrong that we were when Paterno's sons took to Twitter to let everyone know the rumors of their father's death were premature.

Those of us who helped spread the mis-information did not live up to the first bullet-point in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:  "Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error." We all failed to independently vet and confirm the information about Joe Paterno before passing it on to readers, viewers, listeners and online followers.  In the process, we failed to "show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage," another tenet of the Code, causing undue additional stress on the Paterno family.  Shame on us!

I give Devon Edwards, the young managing editor of Onward State, credit for his accountability.  Late last night, he posted a letter to readers on the Onward State website and Facebook page expressing deep sorrow for the mistake his site had made, apologized to the Paterno family, and announced his immediate resignation.  A tough way to learn a valuable lesson, but that's what the college experience is supposed to do.  It may be worth noting that, according to his  Google+ profile, Mr. Edwards is not a journalism major, but a sociology and political science major who will soon enter law school.  I think that says more about those of us who do have journalism degrees or have worked in journalism for many years than it says about Mr. Edwards.  While it appears that he probably knew better than to run with unconfirmed information, we professional journalists definitely knew better.

Despite all of the pressure placed upon us as reporters, anchors, producers, editors, photographers and videographers to get the big stories and get them first, it's best to get the big stories and get them RIGHT, even if that means we get them second or third.  We absolutely should not and cannot forget the foundation of what we do and why we do it.  Social media tools provide great opportunities to help news organizations to collect and disseminate information very quickly and sometimes, first.  But we would do well to remember that first means nothing if the information is not accurate.  As a dear friend of mine likes to say-- "If my mother tells me something, I trust the information but still verify it."

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