What the Joe Paterno “Breaking News” Debacle Can Teach Us About Modern Media
To some of you, this post might seem like it’s coming out late regarding the passing of the legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno. This post is, in fact, right on time. It just seems late because online media (Twitter, CBSSports.com, etc.) has made the need to “break” stories and be first with the content more important than having the content of a story be factual.
What happened on Saturday regarding the “passing” of JoePa was a fiasco that highlighted how the new media has aided the public’s insatiable need to get all their news right this minute in 140 character snippets. The problem, however, is not just with the public. The problem is not just confined to the public “needing” their news right when it happens but has also spread to the newsmakers acquiescing to that public “need” and changing what business they are engaged in entirely. Instead of the media being in the business of public service, giving the people the news that they need to function properly in a democracy, now the media is in the business of getting page views, likes, and retweets. While previously the media was charged with being the fifth estate of democracy, now it operates with the goal of reaching the most people in order to sell the viewers as a media commodity to advertisers.
Instead of fact checking their stories and perhaps, if we’re really lucky, writing a story that through its literary prowess speaks to one’s emotional side in addition to their need for the current events, the media has become the equivalent of Henry Ford, churning out stories in the same mold over and over and over and going numb to the importance and impact that their job title holds. Instead of a well-thought out obituary on the passing of Joe Paterno, taking into account not only the recent Jerry Sandusky scandal but also Paterno’s life on and off the field for decades, on Saturday the public mistakenly received the news that the former Head Coach had passed in one short blurb on Twitter by Onward State. That news was then picked up and reported by CBS Sports, who didn’t even bother to cite the student run organization seemingly in an effort to be the “ones who broke the story.” CBS Sports broadcast the story to the country before the Paterno family themselves had to get on Twitter to rebuff CBS’ assertions.
Social media is a powerful tool (see protesters using the internet to communicate to the outside world and to each other during the Arab Spring) but the immediacy and global span of the new media needs to be respected. If you view our “About” page here at SFAS, we’ve been preaching this gospel for a while now. Instead of the media jumping to conclusions and creating the stories for their own benefit, a la John Canzano blatantly using the Willie Lyles scandal at Oregon to make a name for himself or the recent actions of Onward State and CBS Sports, the media needs to fact check their stories even more before hitting publish. Because once a piece is published, there’s no taking it back in today’s world.
This post is not intended to be an indictment against the entire idea of new/social media. These tools can be extremely powerful and help spread news in ways old mass media could only dream of. But a man with a legacy such as Joe Paterno deserved more than having his passing become a footnote because some members of the press wanted to get more page views. His legacy deserved far better than having the reporting of his death turn into a mess that couldn’t help but remind me of the “Bring Out Your Dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Regardless of the events of the past twelve weeks, JoePa deserved something with more dignity than what the news of his passing turned into. Members of the media need to remember always that they serve a role in a democracy that has enormous impact and that the best journalists will be remembered not for who broke the story, but who had the most complete view of the events to serve the public.