The never-ending accuracy lesson

And to think we were just talking about accuracy.

Unless you were just freed by the aliens who abducted you over the weekend, you could not have missed the dust around Joe Paterno’s falsely reported death Saturday night, the retractions, then the correctly reported news of his actual death Sunday.

At least once a year, since social media gave journalists (and everyone else) the capacity to yap at warp speed, some news organization makes a gigantic error like this one. It happened, for example, when Gabrielle Giffords was shot and media outlets incorrectly reported that she had died. What makes the Paterno story more troubling is that so many news organizations picked up the false report from an online site run by Penn State students. Several didn’t even attribute their announcement to the source, and not all of them apologized quickly or were transparent about what happened.

And now, let’s pause for a second and reflect on what it was like to be a member of the Paterno family in the middle of this frenzy. I hope their phones were on silent.

I think this blog post by Carl Lavin does a great job of summarizing the errors and lessons.

The managing editor of Onward State, Devon Edwards (who resigned immediately after assessing the damage done), had this to say:

In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm.

Getting it first is a luxury. It’s great, but it’s not a necessity. Like getting it right. That’s a necessity. These two things should be kept in separate corners. They should not be permitted to do battle for priority.

I’ve had many opportunities (like the day the MU campus went berserk after a Tweet about a gunman on campus) to ponder what the process should be to keep the newsroom and the people who depend on it (readers) safe from error and the harm it can cause.

The trick is to stay calm and quiet so you can hear yourself think.

  • Methodically, using every source at your disposal, attempt to verify the information. As soon as you can publish something, do it. Do not change the process you would normally use to verify facts. You can and must speed up that process, but it should remain unchanged.
  • Be unaffected by the speed of events as much as possible, except in terms of how quickly you make the calls and check (and recheck) sources of information. No shortcuts.
  • Be transparent about what you know and don’t know.
  • Be keenly aware of contradictory information, and if you can’t resolve the discrepancy, acknowledge it.
  • As soon as you are certain that a falsity is in circulation, let everyone know. And apologize. We owe that to the people who trust us for credible information.
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3 Responses to The never-ending accuracy lesson

  1. Tony says:

    It was unfortunate to hear that several news organizations inaccurately reported the death of Joe Paterno. Although he did pass away (RIP Joe Pa), it did not happen until Sunday morning. Problem is, several news outlets reported his death on Saturday, as Paterno was still clinging on for dear life.

    It’s unfortunate to think so many people whose job it is to handle social media for major news organizations would fall in to this trap. I get that immediacy is important in our 24/7 nature of news consumption today, but death is such a fragile topic. Everybody involved, especially the Paterno family, deserves the utmost respect with these types of fragile occurences.

    What baffles me is that in my opinion, being first really isn’t that important anymore. With virtually all news organizations on Twitter today, what good will an extra 10 minutes do? Wouldn’t a news organization receive so much more credibility with a Tweet about how the “reports” are actually false? Imagine being the first to do that. I think it would be so much more effective. To challenge all of your competitors by making a phone call and verifying your information is better than being the first to report something that has not even been confirmed by a reliable source.

    I will take this as a lesson and remember that accuracy is almost always more important than immediacy.

    -Tony (Link to my blog:

  2. erinfjones says:

    I am currently in the “Understanding Audiences” class, and one of the topics we covered is how the public can be considered amateur journalists because of social media. They can spread information instantly across the globe. But what separates journalists from the public is our image of truthful, accurate information. We have to maintain credibility in order to be effective and maintain an audience. If media fails to verify information, they lose readers and can actually cause more harm than good. I definitely think that the public has an obsession with getting information the moment that it happens, but more important is the accuracy of our information. I think of the public as one very large high school. Rumors are constantly flying around, and instead of media outlets being the first one to encourage a rumor, we should be the one who is a little slower to participate in the conversation, but the only voice that has anything worth listening to because it’s verified fact.

    • reedkath says:

      Interesting way to think about it… I like the high school analogy, but I think it’s Twitter that’s like the gigantic high school.

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