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.
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.