As a Pennsylvania native and Penn State fan, today was not one of my favorite days.
The news of Joe Paterno’s health condition started at 4:59PM EST when the following Tweet was shared by Onward State, a popular student-run media organization.
According to a source, former head coach Joe Paterno was taken off of a respirator this morning. onward.st/AcFFzA
– Onward State Feed (@OnwardStateFeed) January 21, 2012
Immediately I shared the news with my Facebook friends, many of whom are diehard Penn State fans. As the event unfolded on the trending Twitter hashtag ‘Joe Pa’, I watched at 8:45pm as Onward State tweeted “Our sources can now confirm: Joseph Vincent Paterno has passed away tonight at the age of 85.” These “sources” later turned out to be “an email sent to players notifying them of Paterno’s death.”
Shortly after this report, the Onward State website became unavailable; presumably due to an unprecedented amount of traffic.
Within 12 minutes it was reported that Dan McGinn, a spokesman for the Paterno family, said that these claims were “absolutely not true.”
Dan McGinn, the Paterno family spokesman, at 8:57 p.m. on reports about Joe Paterno’s death: “Absolutely not true.”
– Mark Viera (@markcviera) January 22, 2012
That didn’t stop big media outlets like CBS Sports, The Huffington Post, and even trusted online sources like BreakingNews.com from taking the story and running with it; reporting to millions of readers that the legendary coach had passed away.
After a brief shockwave of emotion to thousands of Penn State fans across the United States, big media once again proved that they do not understand social media journalism. The lesson here is simple: fact check twice, post once. Not everything you see on the Internet is a fact. Any great journalist understands the importance of fact checking before publishing any story, let alone one of this magnitude. Social media is one source, but it is not the ultimate source. The mistake exemplifies one of the downfalls of social media journalism. As Ben Parr points out, speed does not always correlate with accuracy.
Update: The Paterno family released a statement saying that Joe Paterno has passed away.