First off ... there is never any professional benefit - either individually or organizationally - for being the first to report on a person's death.
You know the story now. About how Onward State erroneously reported that Joe Paterno had died Saturday night (hours before the coach did die, how that story got picked up by CBS Sports and on The Twitter, how that story was debunked, how the managing editor resigned and how that false story came about.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But that's how you teach - you see mistakes made and you correct them. From Onward State's explanation, they had two sources: " an email ostensibly sent from a high-ranking athletics official (later found to be a hoax) to Penn State athletes with information of Paterno’s passing (and) A second writer — whom we later found out had not been honest in his information — confirmed to us that the email had been sent to football players."
Two sources will get you published in a lot of professional newsrooms, to be honest. But let's look at those sources - an email, and then "confirmation" of that email. That's actually the same source. What this story needed - what every story needs, especially big ones like this - is a Devil's Advocate. An "I don't think you've got it yet" person. A pain in the ass. Someone to demand stronger confirmation. Someone who, in this case, should have suggested ...
- Contacting the family's spokesman for confirmation (after all, that is the spokesman's job). - Contacting the hospital. - Contacting Penn State. - Getting a copy of the email. This should happen anytime a source says they have documentation. "Can I see it? Can you send it to me?" And then calling the person who sent it, or the athletic department, asking to confirm the email.
In other words, getting better, more solid confirmation. The use of official sources as a journalism routine is well-established, and often criticized with good reason. But that's what this story needed. Two anonymous sources referring to an email? They didn't have it. If they couldn't get anything else? Either hold the story until they got it, or write around it.
(And CBS, for using this story as the base for its piece? Terrible. It's a phone, guys. Use it).
One of the worst things about this story's discussion has been how it quickly turned into the latest version of "New media is RUINING JOURNALISM," and the quest to be first is ruining the craft. I used some harsh language to criticize this on Twitter. I called people who blame this on the modern media culture idiots. I didn't mean to offend, but it bothers me a lot. The criticism felt like boilerplate criticism of digital journalism. It feels like there's a certain set of people waiting for any mistake via new media to use it as proof that new media is RUINING JOURNALISM. It felt like the "better to be last and right than first and wrong" came out as a talking point, a rallying cry for the ink-stained wretch.
Which bothers the hell out of me.
For one thing, this is not a new phenomenon. It's happened to newspapers (for God's sake, the most famous political headline in the 20th century was a mistake). It's happened to broadcast outlets. It's happened online. There's a Wikipedia page about premature obits, for crying out loud. To suggest this happened because of Twitter or digital media is just wrong.
Second ... being first matters. I'm sorry, but it does. Scoops still count as professional currency to reporters. You move up the professional ladder by getting scoops, by being first with stories. Why is Sara Ganim such a respected reporter now when she was virtually unknown outside of Harrisburg in October? Because she's been first with so many Penn State stories. I got promoted because I was first with stories about the St. Bonaventure welding scandal. It's how the business works.
Plus, the first vs. right debate is a false dichotomy, and I hate me a good false dichotomy (it's up there with print vs. web). Your job as a reporter is to be both first and right. Sorry, but it is. The dichotomy (and to be fair, I've used it myself) feels like an excuse for reporters getting beat or reporters who don't want to go out on a limb with their stories. It's rare that you are faced with a choice of being first or right.
Most importantly, read Onward State's explanation again. "We all saw as reports both of JoePa’s death and his continued survival rolled in from across the web. We did not act on any of these reports."
This isn't the case of a journalist jumping the gun trying to be first and get the glory. Sorry to ruin everyone's talking point, but it's not. This is a case of a mistake. A bad one. An egregious one. But a mistake. The reporters got bad information from sources they believed to be credible and got burned. Every journalist who reads that, if they're honest with themselves, will say "there but the grace of God ..." This was an error in journalism, not of ego or of medium.
A fair point to be raised is that the speed of which this story was disseminated was sped up because of social media. That is true. But it's also true that social media allowed the correct facts to be spread just as fast (in all the talk about how Twitter is RUINING JOURNALISM, nobody's noted that Mark Viera of The New York Times did it right and used Twitter to debunk the false info and spread the correct news).
(My wife raised a good point, too. Devon Edwards, the managing editor of Onward State who resigned on Saturday night after apologizing, is getting lauded. But it's sad that our culture has evolved to the point where if someone makes a mistake, they have no choice but to quit immediately. Especially in this case, when it's a student involved.)
There's a culture change going on in newsrooms in terms of how journalists are doing their jobs. The original model I learned of "gather, sort, report" is evolving into "gather, report, sort." Stories are not static, one-time entities anymore but are fluid, always in progress. Where editors used to be the pain-in-the-ass Devils' advocate (think Ben Bradlee telling Woodward and Bernstein they didn't have it in All the Presidents' Men), now my research is showing that editors are often pushing reporters to get stuff online right away, and reporters are the ones urging caution. This change isn't good or bad, it's the way things are.
Reporters will make mistakes, whether in print or online. The solution is good journalism. The solution is not to rely on the easy sources but to find the best ones. A reporters' job is to be both first and right. No one said that was easy, but it is possible.
And most important - there is nothing to professionally gain from breaking the story of someone's death.