You may remember that Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot to death last year outside a grocery store, at least until NPR and other news outlets backtracked and learned that Giffords was, in fact, alive and in surgery.
These incidents only happen to public figures.1 There are no retractions in the obituaries section of the newspaper. But consider this: if Paterno hadn’t passed away a few hours after the erroneous report and instead survived, even for just one more day (or news cycle), how silly would your morning paper2 look?
As I thought about this this morning, my mind turned to case of speed. To whom on this planet does it matter that Joe Paterno is dead so much so that they need to know the second he’s taken his last breath? I would argue that pool is as large as zero, outside of his family and his inner circle of friends.
News is only news as long as it’s new. As a journalist, I know there are bragging rights at stake for breaking a story first, but “I reported a man’s death first” is pretty thin glory. I tweeted that thought and had a nice exchange with Mark Loundy:
It’s not about ‘glory.’ It’s about value to the readers — which we don’t dictate.
I questioned the value, from a reader’s perspective, of knowing whether someone is dead two minutes before someone else, to which Loundy replied:
Many people like knowing things like that first. Whether you or I share that like is irrelevant.
The first is a valid point, I said. But as the Giffords and Paterno incidents have both shown, that drive can be destructive and, at the very least, get in the way of accurate reporting. One Devon Edwards, the now former managing editor of Onward State, learned that the hard way. Very much to his credit, Edwards wrote a no-bull explanation of the events:
In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm.
For the record, there is no Pulitzer Prize for Best Intentions.
Now think about times when the media is criticized for not reporting the news quick enough. There are always sins of omission, or waste dumps simmering without investigation for decades, or the candidate whose checkered past was not discovered until after the election. What stands out to me as a counterpoint in the urgent news game is the tornado. A not uncommon refrain after a tornadic catastrophe sounds something like: “We only had two minutes warning,” or, “the sirens never went off.”
I was the lone web editor on duty at MPR the night more than three dozen tornadoes touched down across Minnesota in 2010. I’m sure we relayed information that was inaccurate, or delivered tornado warnings to areas that ended up with just a strong thunderstorm. But the message was clear, consistent and necessary. Get to a safe place.
The broadcast team went wall-to-wall storm coverage that evening, and delivered information from the National Weather Service as fast as possible, because it needed to be.
Knowing about Joe Paterno’s death two minutes sooner will not make a difference in anyone’s life. 3
Joe Paterno is not a tornado. Check your facts, double check your facts, and then broadcast the right information.
Over at Poynter, Craig Silverman chats with AP associate managing editor Ted Anthony about his organization’s approach — “conditions for accuracy” — and how it kept the AP out of trouble in both the Giffords and Paterno cases:
Even before Penn State student news organization Onward State reported that Paterno had died on Saturday night, AP reporters and editors had already discussed how they would handle Paterno’s death.
That afternoon, AP reporters in State College began hearing from sources that Paterno’s health was deteriorating. This was confirmed in a statement issued by the family.
“So at that point we had conversations, the usual planning conversations, but also we acknowledged there could very well be a flurry of these more-dire-than-the-reality reports [of Paterno’s health], and we needed to be aware of that, and we needed to expect these and not be surprised and apply our usual standards,” Anthony said.