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about 2 years ago

What Happened Last Night

Old Main at night

Last night was one of the worst moments of my entire life. But before I can explain what happened, you need to know a bit about Onward State. Onward State is a community news site, and that means that most decisions are made in a collaborative environment. To the best of my ability, given privacy considerations, I hope to explain how Onward State came to inaccurately report that Joe Paterno had died.

The story began Saturday morning, when an Onward State writer got confirmation on a story that he had been working on since the previous evening — that Joe Paterno was in his final days. We held off on reporting that story until it was reported elsewhere, a decision we fatefully didn’t repeat later in the day. Around 4:00 p.m., Blue-White Illustrated’s Tom McAndrew wrote a post on the premium board that Joe Paterno’s health was in serious decline and his family had been summoned to his bedside. We added McAndrew’s information to our report and published the original item we had been holding, reporting that Joe Paterno was clinging to life.

For the next few hours, unknowing of what would happen next, managing editor Devon Edwards worked with reporters who were spread across campus at various points of interest. Our online newsroom allows us to collaborate and communicate from anywhere, and we all saw as reports both of JoePa’s death and his continued survival rolled in from across the web. We did not act on any of these reports.

But at around 8:00 p.m., one of our writers posted that he had received word from a source that Joe Paterno had died. The source had been forwarded an email ostensibly sent from a high-ranking athletics official (later found to be a hoax) to Penn State athletes with information of Paterno’s passing. A second writer — whom we later found out had not been honest in his information — confirmed to us that the email had been sent to football players. With two independent confirmations of an email announcing his death, managing editor Devon Edwards was confident in the story and hit send on the tweet we had written, informing the world that Joe Paterno had died.

Shortly after that, the unthinkable happened — Paterno family spokesman Dan McGinn issued a refutation of our information, later corroborated on Twitter by Paterno’s sons Scott and Jay.

Disbelief spread across the organization and its members as we realized the gravity of our mistake. As Edwards explained to me in an email comment, “Sadness turned to shock and panic as I realized that I had made the mistake of a lifetime.”

After we had issued retractions of our misinformation, Devon and I regrouped and talked about what would come next. We mutually decided that it would be in the organization’s best interest for him to apologize publicly and relinquish his post as managing editor, effective immediately. Devon will remain affiliated with the organization and, given his experience last night, we will be drawing on him extensively to improve our editorial processes in hopes of preventing something like this from ever happening again.

On behalf of everyone at Onward State, I would like to apologize for our organization’s inaccurate reporting last night. More than anything else, we value our readers’ trust, and the sick feeling in my stomach is a constant reminder that last night, we lost a great deal of it. Onward State is a student-run community news website. We believe in our readers and writers, and hope that together Onward State can emerge from this episode a better and more accountable organization because of it. Feel free to contact me via email with additional comments on how we can improve — we are here to serve you.

51 Responses to “What Happened Last Night”

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Fact, Fiction or Fabrication | COMM 260W, Section 10, Fall 2013 says:

[…] A prevalent issue within journalism today is the falsity of both sources and information. It is one which comes with the rapid developments in technology as well as the increasing use of online outlets for reporting. A specific situation which hits close to home was the tweet from Onward State in January 2012 which falsely reported the death of Joe Paterno. This tweet was picked up by major reputable online news sources, prompting Onward State to issue this apology. […]

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