January 1, 2012

Proper process missing in reports of Paterno’s death

Let’s start with this, because it’s clear-cut: There’s no glory in scooping the rest of the journalism world on news of a death. Let me repeat: no glory.

Especially when it’s an 85-year-old man with lung cancer who’s been in the hospital for more than a week. Even if that 85-year-old is Joe Paterno, a towering figure in the history of Penn State and one of the central figures in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, one of the biggest news stories of 2011.

This isn’t to say it’s not news. Of course it is. But there are only two sources who can confirm it. One, family. Two, official hospital and/or law enforcement personnel, speaking on behalf of the organization and for the record.

If you’re a journalist and someone tells you that associates of a prominent figure are getting emails indicating that said prominent figure has died, your immediate reaction needs to be this: Call officials for confirmation. Wait for a response. Do not publish until it’s confirmed. Officially. (While you’re waiting, organize and plan your coverage.)

This is not abdicating your responsibility to hold officials to account. This is not shirking your duty to inform your readers of news in a timely manner. This is adhering to the most important rule in journalism: If your mother says she loves you, check it out! Corollary: Check it out with the proper sources and don’t forget to ask the key question: How do you know this? For the vast majority of professionals, this is more than a rule. It’s a way of life.

If you work for another news organization, and you see a vaguely sourced report of someone’s death, the same rules apply. Check it out. As far as I’m concerned, the rules are the same whether you’re going to post an obituary on your website or tweet a link to the original report. As a journalist, your responsibility is greater than others retweeting. (And this isn't a Twitter problem. It's a verification one.)

I wish I could say I was shocked by the erroneous initial reports of Paterno’s death by Onward State and I wasn’t. Because for all of the outstanding reporting that’s been done during the Sandusky scandal and aftermath, there’s a clear pattern that’s disturbing. One-source stories are proliferating.

Two quick examples:

  • The original story that Sue Paterno had been denied entrance to a university swimming pool was written by the (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News, which has been largely outstanding, based on one source close to the Paterno family. Which isn’t enough. A Penn State spokesman said, “I have heard nobody discuss this.” Which isn’t enough, either.

    It fell to others to check out the schedule for the campus swimming pools and discover that both the McCoy Natatorium and White Building pools were closed for the Thanksgiving break. It then became clear that Sue Paterno had been swimming in Lasch Building, the football building. Which is a different, more complex story.

    The newspaper added this editor’s note to its original story: “Some readers have believed this story is incorrect because the university Natatorium is closed for Thanksgiving. Sue Paterno normally works out in the football building pool and was turned away, university spokesman Bill Mahon confirmed yesterday, though officials are working on a plan to have her use the facility.”

    No need to do that if you’ve reported the story thoroughly in the first place.
  •, which was alertly and smartly tracking Penn State’s private planes and those of some prominent donors during the coaching search, reported Jan. 4 that Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was a target, based on flight records that showed multiple trips by a University plane to nearby airports and layovers that left enough time for an interview. Later that day, however, “a source close to” Schiano contacted the reporters to say that Schiano had not interviewed for the position.

    Why not include that in the first story, which had no sources except for the flight data? There’s a reason it’s customary to ask story subjects to comment on stories before they run, even if all you get is a “no comment” or an unreturned call.

These are small examples, yes. But as Paterno himself repeatedly said throughout the years, “If you take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.” And this is a perfect example of how if we journalists don’t take care of the little things, when the big things happen, we're not as equipped to handle them correctly.

We’ve got to be careful with observations, too. Throughout this scandal, journalists I respect have tweeted snippets of information—essentially, their observations—with no context.

Official Penn State website no longer lists Tom Bradley as interim head coach! (Someone else thought to call sports information and shortly tweeted that a technical problem had caused a previous version of the site to appear.) A priest from the Penn State Catholic Center walked through the hospital lobby! (Priests are in and out of hospitals all the time; who’s to say he had anything to do with Paterno?)

Both details are good ones. Both are worthy of follow-up. But should both be immediately disseminated to the public? I don’t think so. Context matters.

This is how the proverbial slope gets slippery. If your first instinct when you notice a change on a website or a person walk by is to publish the information on Twitter—and make no mistake, if you’re a journalist on Twitter, even using your personal account, you are publishing it—by writing or retweeting it, it’s not a big jump to do the same when you start to hear reports of a death.

That instinct to immediately publish kicks in, I think, even if you’ve just observed other journalists and news outlets publishing information snippets. Or if you’ve seen established journalists and news outlets retweeting those one-source stories and contextless observations. It starts to look like that’s the standard.

That’s something we need to fight against. Our standards need to be high. Our readers expect it. Our communities need it.

I was heartened Saturday, as I monitored the rumors and reactions proliferating on Twitter, that people were tweeting at respected and established Penn State beat writers, asking if they knew anything about Paterno’s health. That’s the kind of credibility sports journalists need to establish. And the way to do it is simple: Question, verify—and only then, publish.

Lori Shontz,

Lori Shontz

Lori Shontz, part of the Curley Center’s board of directors since the beginning, spent nearly 18 years in the sports departments of daily newspapers before becoming a senior editor at The Penn Stater alumni magazine in 2009. She’s also an adjunct lecturer in the College of Communications. You can… More