Student website prompts firestorm of false news as U.S. media scramble, prematurely reporting Paterno's death

In another example of news organizations jumping the gun as false information spreads like wildfire across Twitter, U.S. media outlets prematurely reported the death of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, driving home the lesson that "social media tools do not need to force news organizations to compromise their standards," according to The New York Times.

Based on an unverified email that turned out to be a hoax, the Penn State student news website Onward State first tweeted on Saturday, Jan. 21, that Paterno, who recently had resigned after a child sex-abuse scandal involving his former assistant coach came to light, had died -- he did not in fact die until Sunday. CBS News and the Huffington Post quickly picked up the false story, which already was spreading through the social media realm, explained Poynter, which also tweeted the erroneous information. It wasn't long, however, before The New York Times and others began tweeting that family spokespeople had denied the rumors and said Paterno was not dead. ProPublica offers this account of how the mistake occurred.

Poynter criticized CBS News and the Huffington Post for not crediting -- or verifying -- the report from Onward State when the news first broke, but then "passing the buck when the student news organization got it wrong." Both publications since have published corrections.

Onward State Managing Editor Devon Edwards later published a retraction and resigned, writing, "To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you... 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."

The Washington Post pointed out that the false reports call to mind NPR's gaffe a year ago in mistakenly reporting that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died, when in fact she had survived a shooting in Arizona.

As CNN noted, "The incident highlighted the crucial clash in today's hyper-competitive news environment: getting it fast versus getting it right."

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