Over the weekend, Onward State, the student blog of Penn State University, made a mistake that it will never forget. It is a mistake that all newsrooms make: reporting a story incorrectly. While it is impossible to get it right every time, a checklist that tells reporters what to do in a breaking news situation could be the answer.
On Saturday night Onward State first broke the news on Twitter that the institution’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, had died. Major news outlets, including CBS Sports, picked up the news before Paterno’s family was able to tweet back a response: the former coach, in fact, was “continuing to fight.”
Onward State managing editor Devon Edwards immediately apologized and resigned. And other news outlets scrambled to issue retractions as well.
Davis Shaver, Onward State’s founder and general manager, wrote a piece the next day, explaining what exactly happened on Saturday that led to the publication’s mistake.
It turned out the editors were cautious and held off on reporting an earlier story regarding Paterno’s failing health. They were anxious to act upon any speculation circulating online between 4:00 and 8:00 in the evening.
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.
Finally, Shaver wrote:
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.
Paterno eventually died Sunday morning, Jan. 22.
The blog’s “cautiousness” was clearly not enough on Saturday night. Perhaps news organizations need additional procedures more in place to prevent mistakes like this.
Sometimes additional steps can help a great deal. Several years ago, in December, 2007, the New Yorker published an article by Atul Gawande about the importance of having procedures in place to prevent human error. In it, Gawande shared the following story:
On October 30, 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, the U.S. Army Air Corps held a flight competition for airplane manufacturers vying to build its next-generation long-range bomber. In early evaluations, the Boeing Corporation’s plane could carry five times as many bombs as the Army had requested; it could fly faster than previous bombers, and almost twice as far. The flight “competition,” according to the military historian Phillip Meilinger, was regarded as a mere formality. The Army planned to order at least sixty-five of the aircraft.
The Boeing plane crashed soon after it took off. Future investigation revealed it was a pilot error; as this plane required very sophisticated steps to fly. And its pilot, Ployer Hill, only forgot to release the elevator lock before takeoff.
And while future pilots could have taken more flight training lessons, Hill was already one of the best pilots the Army had. It would be difficult to train someone to the point where his “experience and expertise” exceeded Hill’s.
Some test pilots of Model 299 later came up with a simple solution: give each pilot a checklist, with a step-by-step check for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing.
After these test pilots introduced the checklist in 1937, pilots were able to fly the Model 299 for 1.8 million miles without accident. And B-17, as Model 299 became, helped the U.S. Army gain a significant air advantage in the bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.
A social media checklist may be the answer for newsrooms. It should lay out clearly reliable sources to attribute to, potential ethical dilemmas, the much-needed fact-checking procedures (for example, a family member or a designated spokesperson must be contacted before the death notice could be given), and how to make an in-time correction when an error occurs.
Admittedly, such a procedure will slow down the speed of breaking news. But it could potentially eliminate a lot of mistakes and the need for a lot of apologies.
After making “a mistake of a lifetime” as Edwards put it, Onward State may as well be the first newsroom to have such a checklist in place.