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For a few shameful hours, news of Paterno's death was greatly exaggerated

Here are a couple of time-tested rules for journalists:
* "Trust, but verify."
* "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

But those rules went unheeded by a Penn State student publication, Onward State, whose managing editor last Saturday evening tweeted that Joe Paterno had died.  Mainstream publications -- from CBSsports.com to the Huffington Post -- picked it up and spread the "news."  Meanwhile, Paterno was still alive; the family did not announce his death until Sunday morning.  The fallout was serious: the student editor retracted the report and later resigned; other publications issued corrections of various sorts.  Errors don't get much more serious than saying someone is dead who is not.  And those who would fault Twitter, that lightning-fast social media tool, are making the mistake of blaming the messenger.  It's not the medium; it's the method -- the failure to corroborate and verify information before pressing the button.  Any button.

This eye-opening piece by ProPublica's Daniel Victor describes what happened behind the scenes at Onward State.  

(Here at The News, editors were in close contact Saturday night, watching and evaluating the reports.  Although we would have been ready to put a story on the front page about Paterno's death, it was clear by deadline that he was still alive.  We published a brief item on Sunday's front page, referring readers to a story inside the section reporting that Paterno was in serious condition.  Sunday morning, we reported his death on our website, once it was official.  And Monday, we devoted a significant chunk of the front page to a story and Bucky Gleason's commentary on Paterno's legacy.)

If what happened with the false reports sounds familiar, that's because the same thing happened a year ago. Here's a story by the Poynter Institute's Craig Silverman recalling how, in the wake of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's shooting last January in Tucson, many mainstream media organizations erroneously reported her death.  

You would think everyone would learn once and for all how not to let such a thing happen.   Maybe this will be the last time, but don't hold your breath. 

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