Classy Editor Resigns Over False Joe Paterno Death Story
On Saturday night, Twitter was abuzz with news of the death of legendary former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.
The story, released by Penn State’s student-run blog Onward State, was quickly tweeted around the Internet. Almost immediately, their story was being shared by many of the most trusted big-name reporters in the United States.
The problem, of course, was that the story was wrong.
Joe Paterno’s son pushed back on the story by tweeting out a correction which stated that his father was still alive, and other sources confirmed that Mr. Paterno was badly ailing, but alive.
Devon Edwards, the Managing Editor of Onward State, responded quickly with a rather stunning statement that should serve as an example of a tone-perfect statement for executives in crisis. It appears in full below:
A Letter from the Managing Editor of Onward State
Earlier this evening, Onward State reported that Joe Paterno had passed away; however, the mountain of evidence stacked opposite that report became too much to ignore. At this time, I would like to issue an official retraction of our earlier tweets.
I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.
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.
I can only hope and pray that the outstanding work our writers and photographers do on a day-to-day basis is not overshadowed by the events of tonight. I understand that our reputation is in serious question, but I hope you will continue to stand by us as we do everything in our power to make amends.
To begin that process, I will be stepping down from my post as Managing Editor, effective immediately. I take full responsibility for the events that transpired tonight, and for the black mark upon the organization that I have caused.
I ask not for your forgiveness, but for your understanding. I am so very, very, sorry, and we at Onward State continue to pray for Coach Paterno.
Not everyone needs to step down over a crisis. That Mr. Edwards (a college senior) chose to do so is a remarkably rare act of journalistic integrity. Not only is his statement is pure class, but it honored at least five of the seven truths of a crisis.
Well done, Mr. Edwards.
UPDATE: January 22, 2012, 12:49pm: According to a statement from the Paterno family, Joe Paterno passed away early this morning. Family members occasionally conceal a high-profile death for a few hours to allow them to notify close friends and family and have a few last moments of privacy. I have no information about whether or not that happened in this case, but it’s a story worth pursuing. If it turns out that Mr. Edwards was right, he should not only keep his job, but be commended for his scoop. If he was off – by even a few hours – he should stand by his original statement and not try to regain his old post.
Are you kidding me, this guy has no class, and really, no shame it appears. Understanding? He wants us to understand that forgetting all his journalistic and editorial integrity, he chose to publish a false article knowing full well it was false and gambling on the bet that these days “getting it first conflicts with getting it right” and that his intention was not to fall in the chasm (aka he hoped that Paterno would indeed die and his story would be true!!)
And thats not even all of it. The gall of his writing makes me puke in my mouth. So “the mountain of evidence stacked opposite that report became too much to ignore”, so they were waiting to see if Paterno would indeed die in short order and if so they wouldnt have to issue a retraction, but oh well, the mountain of evidence has now become too big too ignore and so he should retract it?
It makes think less of you Brad thinking you think this is acceptable let alone ‘class’ behavior as you say it. You should be ashamed as well. (Although by your definition of class behavior, I’m guessing this comment will never appear on the site. Oh well, so much for journalistic integrity these days)
You and I are speaking about two different things.
You’re right that Mr. Edwards’ decision to go with the Paterno death story was wrong. I’m a bit more forgiving than you are given that Mr. Edwards is a college student and not a professional journalist, but I agree he had a major responsibility and blew the story.
He’s far from alone, though. NPR claimed that Gabrielle Giffords had died. All of the television networks had declared George W. Bush the president in 2000, then retracted the call when it became clear it was too close to call. Here are three additional examples: https://www.throughlinegroup.com/index.php/2011/01/10/gabrielle-giffords-when-the-media-blows-it/.
What’s unique about Mr. Edwards is the way he handled his mistake. Unlike almost all of the previous examples, he didn’t wait for days, or point his finger elsewhere, or make excuses. He took the bullet and resigned. That stands in marked contrast to many who have made similar mistakes in the past.
As for journalistic integrity, how do you know he “knew full well it was false?” If you have evidence, offer it. If you don’t, you’re guilty of the same thing you’re accusing Mr. Edwards of.
Yak, where’s your evidence that OS knew it was publishing false information? Let’s be sure of our facts when attacking the integrity of others.
I agree, Brad, this was a near perfect response, especially when contrasted with CBS Sports, which didn’t credit Onward State properly when repeating their “scoop,” but quickly threw them under the bus when it became clear the report was wrong. Shameful.
We don’t know how Edwards got the story to run, but it’s conceivable someone with inside knowledge tipped him off to the death after it actually happened. The national media pounced, the family wasn’t ready and issued a denial, and Edwards wants to protect the source who maybe shouldn’t have told him or whatever. Really does put a different spin on the story, and makes you wonder whether Edwards was right, and was fed accurate info, the guy is a hero in terms of what journalism tries to do.
We think alike. I just wrote something similar as an update to the story (you can find my update at the bottom).
Thanks for reading,
In terms of Paterno and his PR strategy, I’m afraid he died one year too late. 🙂
We will all miss Joe. When he goes. In the meantime, remember the old saw “If they say your mother loves you, check it out.”
Brad, you gave examples of NPR stories on GG, various networks on GW and so forth.
That is EXACTLY the problem I’m talking about. As long as people like you and the chorus of people commending Edwards seem to believe that as long as you retract things in *class* and apologize when the error is brought to light, everything is fine and forgiveable, this stinky state of matter in the media will NEVER change.
The only way to force people to change is to hold them accountable. Exact punishment when necessary (sometimes even when it hurts). Thats why we have the penal code enforceable over the Christian doctrine of forgiveness.
With this eagerness to project out own magnanimity in forgiveness over standing up for errors and making people accountable, we get what we deserve… Like the media we have in our hands… and the Wall Street culture that sees it OK to risk with people’s money when things are good with now the hope and understanding that they will be bailed out with more of other people’s money when you know what hits the fan. Where’s the accountability in that.
And while I have been a great fan of Paterno and all his work, in final reckoning, the same standards in accountability apply to him as well, and unfortunately based on what has come to light in the aftermath of Sandusky scandal, I cannot forgive him, and nor should most people if our priority is to send clear signals and uphold the principles of justice and accountability.
ok enough ranting
I’m a bit confused, since I think we actually agree.
Your main point seems to be that journalists who commit errors should be held accountable for them. I agree. In the case of Penn State’s student editor, he resigned immediately, a serious punishment that seems to meet your standard of accountability.
But then the question becomes this: After someone accepts responsibility, they can do one of two things. They can either handle it gracefully, or they can compound their initial error with a feckless response. Given the two choices, wouldn’t you prefer the former? And isn’t it possible to sanction the original reporting error and demand accountability without continuing to pile on after they take appropriate responsibility?
In the end, I don’t really disagree with your main point here. People should be held accountable for the actions. But after following so many cases in which a public figure screws up and then makes it worse through a clumsy response, I guess I have some appreciation for a person who screws up and at least owns up to it.
Thanks, as always, for reading,