CBS Prematurely Reports Paterno’s Death


Late Saturday night, CBS Sports seriously undermined its credibility and committed a grave mistake when it prematurely and erroneously reported the death of Joe Paterno. The mistake is unforgivable.

Journalism is a competitive business. If a news organization is the first to “break” the story, viewers/readers may be more likely to turn to the source for news. There is much pressure among news organizations to be the first to break stories. But, in this instance, erroneously breaking the story of Paterno’s death caused irreparable damage to CBS Sports’ journalistic reputation.

CBS reported Paterno’s death based on information from an unofficial Penn State sports website. Using information from sources closer to the situation and attributing it to these sources is common place in journalism, but before reporting Paterno’s death, CBS should have confirmed with other sources before proceeding with its report. Meanwhile, other news outlets were not reporting Paterno had died. These outlets instead reported Paterno was in serious condition, according to the family.

Following CBS Sports’ report, a Paterno family spokesman denied Paterno had died.
CBS then immediately began backtracking on its story and issued an apology to the family via its Twitter page:

“Earlier Saturday night, published an unsubstantiated report that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. That mistake was the result of a failure to verify the original report. holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations. extends its profound and sincere apology to the Paterno family and the Penn State community during their difficult time.”

Less than 24 hours later, Paterno did die and CBS Sports reported on the death with information coming directly from the family.

What was to be gained from reporting Paterno’s death before confirming with several sources? 

Instead of breaking the news, CBS Sports had to spend the rest of Saturday night trying to recover and apologize for its error. 

In my opinion, great journalism following the death of an icon like Joe Paterno comes from the tribute stories, not based on which was the first to break the news.
Breaking news is important, but not as important as getting it right.

CBS Sports’ actions were an embarrassment to journalism.

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About The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project

The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project is a hub for teaching, research, and service related to sport media. The Project benefits students and faculty at Bowling Green State University, and offers outreach and media consulting to area and regional groups that work with student-athletes. Through collaborative efforts of the Sport Management program and the School of Media and Communication, BGSU students have the opportunity to learn such skills as sports writing, reporting, broadcasting, announcing, public relations, media relations, communication management and production. Faculty and other scholars have access to resources about the commercial and sociological aspects of sport.

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