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Thoughts, news and notes from the sports staff of The Saratogian newspaper, located in historic Saratoga Springs, New York. The gang in the corner office on Lake Avenue give you the post-game wrap-ups, news and notes from the games we cover and opinions about the sports we read about every day.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

We misreported Joe Paterno’s death, here’s how it happened.

Along with hundreds of other news outlets we made a serious error Saturday night: we reported that Joe Paterno died when, in fact, he was still fighting for life in a Pennsylvania hospital.

Mistakes like that are unacceptable — everyone at the Saratogian knows that.

First and foremost, our sincerest apologies go out to Paterno and his friends and family who were hurt by the deluge of misreports. Second, everyone at the Saratogian, including myself, apologizes to our readers for our mistaken report. Our credibility is damaged, understandably so, and we will all redouble our efforts to (re)gain your trust in our news reporting.

The apologies are one thing; but they alone won’t cut it.

Here’s an accounting of how this mistake was made, how we attempted to correct it and what we will do to make sure nothing like this happens again.

First, a timeline of the error:

We first published an AP story that Joe Paterno was gravely ill around 6 p.m. Saturday. That story was posted on all of our sports and news social media accounts.

From that point on, the three members of the sports department who were working and I watched social media and national news outlets very closely for news related to Paterno. We also paid strict attention to the news being reported by the Citizens Voice newspaper from Wilkes-Barre, Pa. That paper broke the (correct) news of Paterno’s grave condition so we lent it credence we otherwise might not have.

The sports and news departments continued to build the print pages of the Sunday paper while keeping a close eye out for developments in the story. When the Associated Press published an extended story about Paterno’s health we updated our website. The sports department began to develop two plans for the print product — one front page design in the event of Paterno’s death and another if the story remained the same all night.

Around 8:30 p.m. things began to go wrong.

We all noticed hundreds of reports on social media of Paterno’s death. We immediately checked major news outlets (like CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, ESPN) for confirmation. When reported Paterno’s death we hesitated to publish until we also saw that the Citizens Voice and one of our sister papers in Pennsylvania published the same news.

At that point we (it was really all hands on deck in the newsroom) pulled the trigger on a short story online that cited and linked to CBS’ report of Paterno’s death. We posted that story on all of our social media outlets. We also retweeted CBS’ reports on Twitter.

A few minutes later I took the information from CBS and combined it with an earlier AP story that had details of Paterno’s career to create a longer story about his (alleged) death for the website.

Then, we scrambled to correct our mistake:

Less than 30 minutes after we reported Paterno’s death we began to see a new deluge of reports via social media — reports saying he was in fact still alive.

I again edited our online story and headline, this time couching CBS’ report (which was not yet retracted) with links to a New York Times reporter’s tweet quoting the family spokesperson.

We sent more alerts via social media highlighting the discrepancy in reports.

When the Associated Press reported the same quote from the Paterno family spokesperson (that reports of Joe Paterno’s death were ‘absolutely not true’) I pulled all mention of Paterno’s death from our website and posted a new story. That story began like this:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — News that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died exploded on the internet Saturday evening, including a report on CBS Sports. Soon after, however, the Paterno family spokesman, Dan McGinn, told the Associated Press that reports of former Penn State coach's death are 'not true'.

I wanted to account for the media reports of Paterno’s death that were still pouring out, fast and furious, from across the country, while also reporting the family spokesperson’s assertion that Paterno had not died.

At this point we began to pull back all of incorrect reports on facebook and twitter. We posted the correct story several times, deleted tweets and facebook posts with incorrect information and responded to readers who had called us on our mistake.

Here's the story that ended up in print and on our website.

So that’s how it happened, here’s how we prevent it from happening again:

All of the incorrect reports trace back to the story which cited, an independent Penn State student newspaper that first incorrectly reported Paterno’s death. We got caught up in the sense that “everyone” was reporting Paterno’s death, when in reality a lot of people we follow on twitter were passing around CBSSports’ and OnwardState’s incorrect reports.

We should have drilled down to the source on every media report we used to justify our publication of the story – including the incorrect reports at our sister paper and at the Citizens Voice. Had we done that we would have wound up with just one source, Onward State via CBS, rather than the multiple sources we thought we had. (Click here for more on this idea from

We should have waited for the Associated Press to publish a report or waited for independent confirmation from at least one other national media outlet before we published a story.

We should have counted to 10 (or 10 million) before hitting publish. In the age of online journalism and in a company that prizes a “digital first” ethos, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of pushing news out fast and furious. Waiting a few minutes to confirm and then confirm again feels like an eternity when it seems everyone has beaten us to a story. Getting a story wrong feels a lot worse, as we learned tonight. In the case of misreporting someone’s death, getting the story wrong is just not acceptable.

Emily Donohue

Online Editor


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there a Cliffs Notes version of this article?

January 22, 2012 at 2:25 AM 
Blogger The Saratogian Sports Staff said...

Anonymous 2:25 a.m.
Here's the Cliff's Notes version:
We screwed up, we're sorry, we are taking steps to prevent it from happening again.


January 23, 2012 at 2:05 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Much kudos for the sincere apology.

January 23, 2012 at 6:13 PM 
Anonymous Wholesale Printing said...

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January 25, 2012 at 5:18 PM 

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