What a crazy Saturday in both sports and social media. An erroneous report of the death of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno set Twitter afire, but after denials from the family, people were quick to blame the social media service. However, it really wasn’t Twitter’s fault.
Twitter reacts to breaking news. While it was a tweet that began the entire process, it was what was supposed to be a reputable sports news website that set Twitter ablaze.
Onward State, an online news organization at Penn State University tweeted at 8:45 p.m. ET that Paterno had died.
Shortly afterwards, CBSSports.com’s Adam Jacobi saw it, ran with it and put it up in his Eye on College Football blog. CBSSports.com promptly put this up on its front page. It was from this story where people starting reacting with “RIP Joe Paterno” tweets.
Onward State has since deleted its tweet and CBSSports has retracted its original story, however, someone did manage to get a screengrab of the original story and I have it for you below.
Almost 12 minutes later, Onward State tweets that it will look further into its original report.
9:21 p.m., Paterno’s sons tweet that their father is not dead and continues to fight.
Six minutes later, CBSSports.com pulls its original report and quickly edits to throw Onward State under the bus after not citing the report at first.
9:29 p.m., Onward State retracts its original report.
After the denials and retractions, the condemnation of both Onward State and CBSports.com begin and to a lesser extent, Twitter.
Then at 10:15 p.m., the managing editor of Onward State, Devon Edwards announced that he was stepping down immediately.
A letter from the Managing Editor of Onward State:
Earlier this evening, Onward State reported that Joe Paterno had passed away. However, the mountain of evidence stacked opposite that report is too much to ignore. At this time, I would like to issue a retraction of our earlier tweets.
I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State would be cited by the national media, and today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for misleading you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.
In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm. All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility.
I can only hope and pray that the outstanding work our writers and photographers do on a day-to-day basis is not overshadowed by the events of tonight. I understand that our reputation is in serious question, but I hope you will continue to stand by us as we do everything in our power to make amends.
To begin that process, I will be stepping down from my post as Managing Editor, effective immediately. I take full responsibility for the events that transpired tonight, and for the black mark upon the organization that I have caused.
I ask not for your forgiveness, but for your understanding. I am so very, very, sorry, and we at Onward State continue to pray for Coach Paterno.
I give credit to Edwards for taking responsibility. Not sure if he needed to step down, but that’s his decision.
Was it Onward State’s fault for running with the story? In hindsight, yes. While it heard from what it thought was credible sources, it did not go the extra mile to get confirmation from the family.
But it is CBSSports.com that really gets the blame here. Adam Jacobi linked to the Onward State tweet and never checked on his own to confirm it. That was the site that started the whole chain reaction. CBSSports.com has plenty of independent reporters who have their own sources who could have confirmed the story before running it. All this happened very quickly and the debunking from the New York Times, CNN and the Paterno family occurred almost as quickly.
While Paterno’s health is not good, it doesn’t mean a rush to report as was the case here. It’s easy to blame Twitter for the erroneous report, however, it should not. The blames goes to shoddy journalism.
For more on the timeline on this story, Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman constructed one through Storify which includes the now-deleted tweets from Onward State and CBSSports.com.
It wasn’t a great night for journalism, but big outlets stepped up when it came time to ensure the story was right.
UPDATE, 2:35 a.m.: CBSSports.com has issued an apology to the Paterno family over the erroneous report. CBS says that is the only statement it will make at this time.