Earlier this year reports spread that Joe Paterno, a former Penn State football coach, had died. The news spread quickly through twitter and soon enough everyone was informed that Paterno had died.
But, he hadn’t actually died.
I think we all remember this media firestorm. It was the first of way to many media mishaps to happen in 2012 (“Chink in the Armor“, anyone?).
CBS tweeted that Paterno had died when it picked up the story from Penn State student run news site Onward State. Reports of emails being sent to Penn State football players about Paterno dying had led to Onward State initially reporting and tweeting about Paterno’s death.
From CBS’s tweet other news organizations caught on, soon the news was everywhere.
And then Paterno’s son’s both tweeted their own news: their father wasn’t dead, but in critical condition. Soon news organizations began rectifying their mistakes and reporting the truth, but the damage had already been done.
This incident showed exactly how the media can latch on to things – true or not – and spread them like wildfire. It also raises some obvious ethical questions, as well as questions about using Twitter for reporting the news.
Onward State had reported this story with reports of emails, not concrete evidence. When it comes to the death of someone well-known, and with extra significance at Penn State, being absolutely sure is vital.
This raises the obvious question of whether breaking news on Twitter is appropriate or not. There has been talked of “Twitter guidelines” in recent months – ESPN has them, with rules such as not breaking news on twitter. Incidents like the misreporting of Paterno’s death rehashes the question of if such guidelines are necessary.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the world without Twitter – but in reality, the social media site is fairly new, and its uses are ever-developing and changing. Twitter has made reporting the news first the easiest thing in the world. No need to waste time crafting an entire article before you can report something – 140 characters and a click later and it’s out there.
But even though reporting something first is desirable, it’s 100% necessary to make sure you’re right. There’s no use in being first if you look like a jackass in the end. There’s no better was to look unprofessional and unreliable that misreporting something like this.
And so that I don’t sound totally engrossed in the ethical business implications about this story – what about the emotional ethics tied to it? Obviously his family was already devastated enough that Paterno was not doing well, but to hear wrongfully that he had died and, most likely, receive premature condolences was probably significantly jarring.
And then there are the people he coached and taught over the hears who were not with Paterno to see he was still alive. They essentially had to hear that he had died twice.
I’m a little on the fence when it comes to Twitter guidelines though. While I think the utmost discretion is necessary, writing out guidelines for an ever-changing medium can lead to an obsolete “Twitter don’ts” list. Precautions with Twitter need to change as the website changes.
Also, as I write this I’ve just heard Dick Clark died. I immediately was shocked, and then a little suspicious. Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing this blog, or maybe this is where media is headed. Personally, I’d prefer to not be suspicious of everything that’s reported just because a few reporters don’t know how to do their job. And I hope misinformation isn’t some new trend..