Stop-SignThis post has been updated; please see below.

If you need a lesson in the value of skepticism, here’s a great example. First, the media widely reported that the beloved former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was in the hospital at death’s door, with the added dramatic detail that his family had been summoned to his side (WebCite cached article). This news was rapidly propagated to all the mass media outlets.

Then, another more alarming report hit the wires and flashed across all outlets even quicker: “Joe Pa has died.” Unfortunately, that part of the story turns out not to have been true. Paterno’s family had to get the word out that the college football patriarch had not passed on. CNN reports on this debacle of idiotic hypereager journalism (cached):

The race to report started at 8:45 p.m. Saturday.

The Penn State student news website Onward State posted an item saying legendary former football coach Joe Paterno had died.

Within minutes, the misinformation pinged from one major news outlet to another, like a metal ball in a pinball machine.

CNN goes on to explain how this false story pinged around various venues — including the CBS Sports Web site and @breakingnews on Twitter — until Joe Pa’s family took measures to contradict it.

One of the cardinal rules of journalism — last I knew — is that you don’t report anything until you’ve confirmed it. Yet, it doesn’t appear that Onward State, CBS Sports, or @breakingnews made any effort to do so before writing or relaying this report.

CNN dutifully adds something of an apologia for this obvious breach of the rules of journalism:

The incident highlighted the crucial clash in today’s hyper-competitive news environment: getting it fast versus getting it right.

Even so, I’m not sure at what point, amid this “pressure to report as quickly as possible,” the journalistic duty to “confirm before reporting” was revoked. But who knows … maybe I missed the edict that disposed of it?

At any rate, this just goes to show, you can’t always believe what you read, hear, or see in the mass media. They can — and sometimes do — get things wrong. Monumentally wrong. And they do it more often now than they used to.

The cold hard fact is that the mass media are prone to run things they either do not check out at all, have only minimally reviewed, or don’t even understand in the first place (rendering them incapable of verifying it, even if they wished to). It’s not just “breaking news” items like this one that they get wrong; they’re frequently wrong where science, the metaphysical, or history is concerned.

I just can’t say it enough: Be skeptical, folks!

Update: It’s now being reported that Joe Paterno died this morning (Sunday, January 22, 2012), as it turns out (cached). So it might seem as though I’m accusing the media of having run an erroneous story, which actually was true. But that’s not the case: Paterno was not dead last night, when this story originally flashed around the media. That story was wrong. This one may or may not turn out to be wrong.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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2 Responses to “Sometimes The Mass Media Are Full Of It”
  1. Gotta' sell those papers, buddy. Gotta' grab them viewers. Gotta' rake in those bucks! Greed… it makes the world go 'round and 'round… as it swirls into the sewer.

  2. […] that this is eerily similar to something that played out, nearly as famously, some 6 months ago, when former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno was prematurely reported dead. The same impulse, it seems, was at play here … CNN and Fox News were so eager […]