It was the ultimate oops, going down in real time.
Onward State, a student-run blog about Penn State University, had reported via Twitter on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012 that legendary (and recently fired) Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died. CBS sports and other news outlets soon picked up the story.
Only problem was, JoePa wasn’t dead. Not yet, anyway.
Paterno, age 85 and in the hospital for complications from his lung cancer treatment, had been taken off a respirator—this much was true. He passed away the next morning, but not before the footballs hit the fan. The Paterno family issued a blunt rebuttal of the report, saying that the family patriarch was fighting on. CBS sports retracted its report. Angry Penn State fans made, well, angry tweets. And the managing editor of Onward State, Penn State student Devon Edwards, resigned immediately from his post, saying in a message on the blog:
I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media…In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm. All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility.
It’s easy to be critical of Devon Edwards, but the fact remains he’s just a kid. He made a mistake, but he handled it in a very adult manner by issuing a sincere apology and resigning. He doesn’t deserve to lose his job, but given the intense emotion surrounding the release of Paterno, the anger from fans, and the heinous crime that was covered up or at least handled poorly by Penn State’s football staff on Paterno’s watch, it’s probably for the best.
Let’s just hope that Devon Edwards doesn’t become a Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs fan who tried to catch a foul ball during a playoff game with the Florida Marlins—a ball that Cubs outfielder Moises Alou was also trying to catch. Cubs fans like to think that Bartman cost them a World Series. Bartman was doing what any fan would do: trying to catch a foul ball. In the heat of the moment, he didn’t make a good decision.
Edwards is guilty of the same. In this insane, information-crazy media world into which we’ve found ourselves thrust unprepared, a world in which everything is “so 12 seconds ago,” Edwards made a mistake in the heat of the moment. In the rush to be first, to scoop the world, he goofed by not practicing one of the most basic tenants of journalism: check your facts.
Steve Bartman has since become a ghost, not talking to the media and certainly not attending Cubs games. His mistake ruined him in many ways. It would be a shame if this happened to Devon Edwards, too. Get back on the horse, kid. You’ve learned an important lesson about the sorry state of the media. Consider this a challenge to the next generation of journalists to change it.