Misinformation about Paterno’s death highlights challenges of breaking news on social media

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Misinformation spread quickly Saturday night after Onward State reported that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died. CBS picked up on the report, and so did many other news sites, including Poynter. Some news organizations soon began contradicting the reports, however, saying that a Paterno family spokesperson told them that news about his death was “absolutely not true.” (On Sunday morning, Paterno did die.)

My colleagues did a great job pulling together information about what happened, and raised important questions about the value in verifying information before posting it on social networks. This is an issue that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years as more journalists break news on social media. And the Paterno incident is reminiscent of what happened last year when news organizations spread false reports of Gabby Giffords’ death.

Here’s a Poynter.org Storify that captures how journalists spread (and later corrected) misinformation about Paterno’s death. And here’s a piece that talks about how “getting it first” is often less about readers/viewers and more about journalists’ desire to be first. Do people really remember who was first with the news? Usually not. As others have pointed out, people are much more likely to remember who was wrong than who was first.

As Saturday night’s events unfolded, I was reminded of a saying that one of my mentors, John Quinn, once shared with me: “Get it first, but first, get it right.” I relayed this advice and talked about the Paterno incident while teaching a social media session to a group of Chips Quinn scholars in Nashville this morning. The incident sparked a lively conversation about the challenges journalists face when posting breaking news on social media.

Of course, when we see breaking news, we want to be part of the conversation. But you can be part of it without reporting information you haven’t confirmed. I always recommend phrasing tweets by saying something along the lines of, “X is reporting Y, but we haven’t been able to confirm this information yet.” Or, you could a couple of tweets saying: “We are working on this story and will tweet updates as soon as we have them.” … “Here’s what we do know …”

This enables you to build your credibility and get your voice in the mix, while letting your audience know that you’re on top of the story and care about getting it right.