“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
— Mark Twain
Spoken by the American author most noted for his tales of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, these words appeared in the New York Journal on June 2, 1897.
The previous day, the New York Herald — then regarded as one of the top daily newspapers in America — reported the 51-year-old Twain was “grievously ill and possibly dying.”
Twain, who wouldn’t die until 13 years later, was in London preparing to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for the Journal. He said the likely source of the Herald’s error was the serious illness of his cousin, J.R. Clemens, who had been in London a few weeks before.
Fast forward nearly 115 years to Jan. 21, 2012.
Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno lies in a hospital bed battling complications from lung cancer. A statement released by a family spokesman to the Associated Press says the legendary coach is in “serious” condition. News outlets in Pennsylvania report that Paterno, 85, is gravely ill and that his wife, Sue, has summoned family to the hospital for final goodbyes.
Then, at 8:45 p.m., Penn State student news website Onward State reports Paterno’s death. The site says the university’s football players were notified of Paterno’s passing in an email.
Minutes later, CBSSports.com reports the same, without directly attributing the information to Onward State. The Guardian and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger follow suit, basing their posts on the CBSSports.com report.
The Twitter feed @breakingnews — with more than 3.5 million followers — links to the CBS story. At Wikipedia, someone changes the entry on Paterno to add his date of death as “January 21, 2012.”
And just like that, within 15 minutes — the length of a quarter in college football — the news of Paterno’s passing had reached the masses.
Except he wasn’t dead.
“CBS report is wrong — Dad is alive but in serious condition. We continue to ask for your prayers and privacy during this time,” Scott Paterno tweeted Saturday night.
(The family announced Paterno’s death Sunday morning).
Onward State, in its haste to be the first to report a story of national significance, had been wrong. The managing editor issued an apology to the Paterno family and to the Penn State community.
Then, he resigned.
CBSSports.com issued an apology for publishing “an unsubstantiated report” and The Huffington Post, which also published the inaccuracy, issued a correction and said it “did not properly attribute the source.”
In this age of digital technology, members of the media walk a fine line between getting it fast and getting it right. At The Herald-Mail, our emphasis always has been and will continue to be on the latter.
We often take calls in the newsroom from people saying they’ve heard this and that, or that another media outlet has reported something and they want to know why we don’t have it yet. More often than not, the answer is that we’re still looking into the information, making sure we have all of the facts before we post anything online.
The Herald-Mail has spent years building its credibility, and it is much too valuable to risk by being the first to get something wrong.
For generations, journalism professors and editors have cautioned students and reporters by saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
In other words, a careful journalist must be skeptical. Even that which seems unmistakably true often isn’t. We also must never blindly accept another’s report as fact. Doing so, in many cases, only leads to embarrassing mistakes.
And when it comes to issuing apologies, do we really want to be first?