Commentary: The perils of breaking news

In some ways, of course, it’s silly for me to comment almost two days later about Saturday night’s Great Twitter Debacle, when former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was reported to be dead before he was actually dead.

Timing, as they say, is everything. And everybody with anything to say has already offered their opinion on what happened when Onward State Tweeted that Paterno had died, with that news being picked up by CBS and the Washington Post and on and on.

Do I have some profound statement to add to the outcries that “Journalism is Dead!” and “Better to Be Right than First” and all that? No, not really.

But here in my little corner of the Web, I am trying to find a way to grow as a journalist while also embracing ever-changing technology. I link to my stories covering IU sports, both here and on my Facebook page. I Tweet from the games, although I have only a few followers (relatively speaking).

But even before Saturday night, I always was concerned about the notion of breaking news. Not that it’s not important, of course. But if a story is big enough to be broken, in due time, everyone’s going to have it. There are, of course, times when someone breaks the whole story — I’m thinking of Charles Robinson’s report for Yahoo Sports, detailing the renegade booster who funneled numerous benefits to athletes at the University of Miami.

To me, though, that’s the exception. Too often now, in part because of the 24-hour news cycle, journalists don’t have the time to conduct long-term investigations. You’ve got something, we’ve got to run it, before someone else gets it first.

And so you prematurely report that a player has been traded or a coach fired or, God forbid, that someone has died before they’ve actually died. Of course, according to Onward State, they were acting on the assumption that their sources were telling them the truth.

The problem, though, is you’ve got to call the family. It sucks. I know, because I’ve had to do that, going to the scene on a couple occasions when I was a cops reporter to try to talk to a grieving family. You feel like the worst kind of intruder, traipsing on someone else’s sorrow to make sure that someone did die.

But you’ve still got to make the call.

Devon Edwards, the Onward State managing editor who posted the erroneous Tweets, gracefully took responsibility for the error and stepped down. He should be applauded. All too often in the news business, errors and their subsequent corrections are buried, with little to no ramifications for the mistakes.

Kudos, Devon, for taking the hit. And best of luck to you.

Share your words of wisdom.