I was reading Facebook Saturday evening when I saw an Update by a local television news outlet with breaking news that Joe Paterno had died. I also get Facebook Updates from The Penn Stater magazine and the Penn State Alumni Association and neither of them repeated the news. In fact, both of them reported that JoPa had been admitted to the hospital and his condition was grave. My journalism training “smelled a rat.” I didn’t see much corroborating data; in fact two fairly reputable sources said that he was still alive.
The quote shown above came immediately to mind as I heard Sunday morning that reports of former Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s death were simply not true. Yes, he was in grave condition in the hospital; but he most certainly had not died Saturday evening.
When word came out later confirming that he had passed, I thought of the quote above; except this time, it wasn’t a lie that had been racing around the world at Tweet-speed, it was misinformation.
The Poynter Institute did a great postmortem about the sequence of events that led to this mass dissemination of something that simply was NOT true.
This episode brings up a disturbing by-product of the always-connected nature of our news consumption and — I would say, more importantly — the relative ease with which bad, incomplete, or uncorroborated information can be spread.
There is such a thing called “primary sources.” These are sources that are most likely to provide accurate information. In the case of Paterno’s death, either the Paterno family or the institution (Penn State) could have been considered primary sources. To its credit, the Associated Press stuck to its journalistic policies — dare I say “instincts”? — and didn’t publish what were in retrospect rumors. Again, Poynter provides the details about AP’s “conditions for accuracy.”
What this all means that, as consumers of information, we all need to be wary of sensational news. I don’t necessarily mean distrustful; I mean simply that we should all be mindful of the source of the information with which we are presented. (In this case, I saw the news media reports, but I didn’t see what I considered more-authoritative sources reporting his death. If Penn State itself wasn’t reporting Paterno’s death, then the news media reports would be held at arms length.
This was yet another lesson about news in our time.