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Paterno's premature death report: How the Star Tribune got it wrong

On Saturday night, several media outlets prematurely reported Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died. It started with an online campus paper, spread to CBSSports.com, then the Huffington Post. The latter two ripped off the erroneous student report without attribution – weird justice there.

Naturally, this was all tweeted, retweeted and Facebooked, leading print-dependent organizations like the Washington Post to tub-thump “Social Media sets off firestorm of false reports.” Meanwhile, Star Tribune business editor Todd Stone tweeted, “Most newspapers have high standards for corroborating a story. Follow them and you will be a reliable and accurate journalist.”

The Sunday state edition sports front
The Sunday state edition sports front

One problem: The Star Tribune not only published the erroneous reports on its website, but on the sports front of its Sunday state edition.

The online story — “Media reports: Paterno has died at age 85” — was only up for a scant 12 minutes, from 8:03 p.m. to 8:15 p.m., before it was replaced by “Family denies media reports that Paterno has died.”

The print side wasn’t so lucky: “Report: Paterno dead at age 85” is there in perpetuity for anyone who bought a Sunday Strib a several dozen miles beyond the metro area.

The Washington Post would’ve been more accurate if it had said “Student journalist sets off firestorm of false reports — abetted by thieving online journalists without the decency to credit.” Stone’s tweet — which I generally agree with —would’ve been better if he’d added “but newspapers are not immune.”

So what happened at 425 Portland on Saturday night? According to knowledgeable Stribbers who asked not to be named because they lacked management clearance to be quoted, the Paterno “story” broke within 20 minutes of the Sunday state edition's 8:10 p.m. deadline.

As you can imagine, 8:10 Saturday night is pretty early for the sports copy desk, which is constantly pushing to get up-to-the-minute results into a Sunday paper that is the week’s most widely read (and most profitable).

Copy editor Ken Chia saw the explosion of “Paterno dead” chatter, saw the seemingly credible CBS name attached to “Joe Paterno: 1926-2012” and for good measure, got the HuffPo report. With his boss’s sign-off — though with disagreement from at least one other copy editor — Chia decided to fold that info into an Associated Press report that Paterno was gravely ill.

Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford said the wire service never transmitted Paterno’s death announcement Saturday. “What we have seen is what somebody here politely refers to as ‘mash-ups’ of erroneous reports,” he says.

Essentially, that’s what Chia did. He added a new lead paragraph to the AP story: “Joe Paterno died Saturday night, CBS Sports and the Huffington Post reported on their websites, hours after doctors said the former Penn State football coach’s condition had become ‘serious’ following complications from lung cancer in recent days.”

Chia left on the AP writer’s byline (Genaro C. Armas), normally a very stand-up thing, since everything else in the story came from the wire. And — in one of those nuanced newspapering conventions most readers don’t grasp — his headline included “Report:” to signal a lack of official confirmation.

(A second copy editor, whose name I don’t know, emitted the bad web report.)

In hindsight, of course, the Strib didn’t remotely need to push the envelope. Anyone who consistently reads the Sunday state edition knows they won’t get much happening after dessert. While I’m sure the Strib copy desk didn’t want a “Paterno ailing” headline to hit the news racks after Paterno died, there was no special urgency if this story was missed — by a day on the print side, or 15 minutes on the web side.

As MPR web editor Than Tibbetts put it on his personal blog “Joe Paterno is not a tornado.”

And yet it’s hard for me not to be understanding, no matter how stupid the mistake. The night before, the sports desk had labored mightily to get superb coverage of a thrilling Timberwolves-Clippers game into the paper, even though the West Coast game lasted well past midnight. As Stone’s tweet indicates, newspapers pride themselves on being a culture of verification, but they are also a culture of news, as in n-e-w.

As a journalist who works without copy editors and wishes he did, I appreciate that defending against errors is a little bit like defending against terrorists … you have to succeed every time, they have to succeed once.

In this case, a defender carried a terrorist’s bomb into the terminal. If nothing else, the Strib should clamp down on the “Reports:” gambit in favor of stronger attribution. The CBS and HuffPo story had vague or nonexistent sourcing that didn’t justify risking this sort of embarrassment.

By 8:20, the sports desk knew their story was in error; apparently “stop the presses!” was not an option. The later Strib edition featured a solid Philadelphia Inquirer story. By the wee hours, Chia, who has worked on the desk for a decade, had outed himself to Facebook pals and lamented equating CBS Sports with Walter Cronkite’s CBS.

Cronkite’s dead, and the Internet and social networking are here to stay. But in this contagion, journalists were the most powerful vector, and print provided less immunity that the tub-thumpers would have you believe.

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Comments (4)

"According to knowledgeable Stribbers who asked not to be named because they lacked management clearance to be quoted,"

Wait a minute. The Strib needs to give "clearance" (i.e., permission) before employees can speak their mind? Is this the same Strib that claims it's part of the journalist class, always fighting for freedom of the press, free speech, etc.?

So management doesn't want to be portrayed as clueless schmucks, but trying to control what your employees say about your screw-ups is definitely an authoritarian strategy. And because management is tone-deaf, they don't even recognize their hypocrisy.

Live by the stolen blog post/tweet, die by the stolen blog post/tweet.

Yes, they give credit once they know YOU were wrong, but none of these major media outlets credited their source until his mistaken reporting bit them on the ass.

I live about five-dozen miles from Mpls and by the time I saw this Sunday am in the Strib he had died. My wife who lives in a news free zone most of the time announced it Monday morning. I did wonder how the Strib scooped this but also noticed how carefully the article was written. I would have done a few more caveats but I am not in the news business. Lucky break. Remember Dewey!

Alas, it's all about "news, here, FIRST," and not "news, here, RIGHT." What's even sadder is that the news wasn't even FIRST. Gossip is cheap, yet the papers still charge for it.