How AP's accuracy set the record straight for media coverage of Joe Paterno

Jan. 25, 2012
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(In this Jan. 24 note below to The Associated Press staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes explains how putting accuracy ahead of assumption and adhering strictly to AP standards set the benchmark for media coverage of Joe Paterno.)

Colleagues,

The report came from an independent student website, OnwardState.com, late on Saturday night: Fired football coach Joe Paterno, hospitalized with lung cancer and said by his family to have taken a serious turn for the worse, had died.

It certainly was plausible, and there was a flurry of postings on Twitter. CBS Sports, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast and MSNBC’s BreakingNews.com. were among those who picked up the story.

But it turned out that OnwardState.com had been taken in by a hoax email. The information was wrong.

The AP didn’t bite, standing by its longstanding policy of confirming deaths with its own reporting, not based on rumors or the work of other news organizations.

Sports writer Genaro Armas, the Penn State beat writer who had built a strong relationship with the Paterno family, didn’t believe the report and contacted family spokesman Dan McGinn. "Not true," McGinn said.

When reports persisted, Armas called again. No, McGinn repeated, Paterno was still alive.

Then McGinn called back to reassure Armas that the reports were erroneous.

Armas notified Deputy Sports Editor Mary Byrne in New York, who consulted Assistant Managing Editor Ted Anthony. They agreed that it would be appropriate to publicly refute the reports to stop the flood of misinformation.

Anthony, AP's senior editor on weekends, had faced a similar situation a year ago when AP failed to notify members after it determined that, contrary to various reports by others, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had not been killed by a gunman.

"What we have learned in the time since is that there are options on real-time media to bring our reporting to bear and say 'We have no evidence of this' ... and to advise our customers more vigorously," Anthony said.

AP soon tweeted that "Paterno family spokesman Dan McGinn tells the AP that reports of former Penn State coach's death are 'not true.'"

With deadlines approaching, Anthony then took it one step further with a wire advisory:

Editors: For your planning purposes, Paterno family spokesman Dan McGinn has just told The Associated Press that reports of former Penn State coach's death are "not true."

CBSSports.com apologized for its mistake, saying it “holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations.”

AP avoided that, and Armas followed up with the accurate beat when Paterno died the next morning. Armas was told by McGinn that there would be a statement within five minutes and that AP would get it first. The APNewsAlert moved three minutes ahead of CNN, the closest competitor.

http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2011/joe-paterno 
For putting accuracy ahead of assumption and adhering strictly to AP standards, Armas wins this week's $500 prize.

Mike Oreskes
Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News





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