Last Saturday, a “source” from Penn State University revealed that Joe Paterno, the 85-year-old ex-football coach embroiled in said university’s sex scandal, had died.
The confirmation, announced via the university’s student news Twitter account, Onward State, prompted many news outlets to publish their own reports. Amongst them were CBS Sport and the Huffington Post, according to a Poynter.org timelime. The world began to take notice as a result… but not as much notice as they did when a family spokesperson said the claims were “absolutely not true”. Although he was admittedly in a fragile state, Paterno had not yet passed away, leading these credible news outlets scrambling to attribute their sources and defend their respective corners.
CBS Sport immediately added the Onward State report to its source list (then published an apology) and Huffington Post updated its original story to say that reports of Paterno’s death had been rubbished – but not before it slyly blamed CBS Sport for the misdemeanour. However the correction came too late, leaving Twitter awash with contradictory reports and allegations of poor journalism from the Huffington Post in particular; a well-respected website.
Although Paterno did sadly go on to die the following Sunday, this has no bearing on the fact that these news outlets went ahead with their reports – despite having no concrete evidence of the facts.
Full steam ahead
So, why would such a credible organisation push forward with a report based on only one source? One word: competition. These days, being the first to break a huge story is quite a coup. Where it used to be that newspapers really only had each other to compete with, the rise of online news websites, freelance journalists and citizen journalists has created more competition than ever. News outlets must work twice as hard to get the facts, get it written and get it publicised as quickly as possible.
However, does this case highlight just how far publications will go to be the first big name out there? Are they sacrificing the true grounding of journalism – research and facts – for the sake of speed?
Fight for freshness, but get your facts straight first
Yes, it’s important for news to be as fresh; hitting the news-stands/websites as soon as possible, but credibility matters too. This is particularly pertinent in the age of brands operating as publishers, wherein they publish features or industry news on their own website in order to connect with prospects earlier in on the buying cycle. If they do so without having all the facts first, this could prove highly detrimental to their reputation; highlighting the importance of working with an established, reliable news agency.
It’s simple. Strive for freshness, but don’t hit the publish button until you are 100% sure you’ve got all the facts, from credible, authoritative sources. Whilst you may be the first name out there, you’ll also be the first others blame if you’ve jumped the gun… you just need to look at the Huffington Post and CBS Sport to see that.