Onward and upward: A clinic on how to respond to an epic fact error

Page A-2 of today’s New York Times carries five corrections. Sunday’s had five, Saturday’s seven, and Friday’s had eight. I can recall seeing as many as 13; a few have attained legendary status. None, so far as I can tell, was made under pressure-cooker deadline conditions. They were just … mistakes. They happen.

This is not to excuse the blunder heard ’round the world fired off Saturday by Onward State, the student-produced news site at Penn State that prematurely declared legendary coach Joe Paterno dead ten hours before he, you know, died. Many terrabytes have already been spilt over What This Represents and The Dangers of Social Media. But news organizations have always, even pre-Twitter, tripped over their own shoestrings racing to be first. Just ask President Gore. Or President Dewey.

If there are any lessons from Saturday’s much-examined misjudgment, they’re not generalizations about how college journalists are sloppy or how online publishing makes people lazy or how social media magnifies the impact of mistakes. The better takeaways are:

  • Have a policy on anonymous sources and stick to it — especially when temptation is greatest not to. This is frankly an area in which the student media as a whole is far ahead of the profession. It’s rare to read a Washington Post political analysis without some White House aide or campaign operative trash-talking the opposition from behind the curtain of anonymity. Had Onward waited for on-the-record confirmation, the site might not have been first to the story. But it might have been right.
  • Attribute, attribute, attribute. CBS and the Huffington Post are, properly, being criticized for failing to credit Onward State for the scoop — and then eagerly attributing the mistake. Attribution does not absolve an error, but it enables the reader to make an independent credibility determination — “according to Onward State” carries less weight than “according to the Paterno family.”
  • When you screw up, own it. The swift and transparent way in which Onward State responded turned the inexcusable into the understandable. It’s apparent from the resignation mea culpa of managing editor Devon Edwards that Onward‘s staff made a genuine effort to verify its information before publishing, and simply was misled by what turned out to be unreliable sources. Again, it happens. The editors had no intent to embellish what appeared on its face to be believable information, and they obviously feel terrible. You can’t respond much more gracefully.