CBS Sports apologized for reporting Saturday that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died, saying it had fallen "well short" of its own journalistic standards. Paterno's family had quickly denied the report, but not before it was tweeted or reported by a slew of other media outlets, all of which raced to update their initial reports after the denial.
Paterno's family announced his death Sunday morning, hours after CBS reported and then retracted that he had died.
Expressing its regret to the Paterno family and the Penn State community, managing editor Mark Swanson said Saturday that CBS Sports had relied on "an unsubstantiated report" and failed to verify it.
"CBSSports.com holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations," he wrote late Saturday.
After the Paterno family disputed its death story, CBS replaced it with one saying it had based its report on the reporting of a Penn State student website, Onward State. The managing editor of the student site resigned Saturday night, saying he never expected its reporting to be picked up by the national media and adding, "I sincerely wish it never had been." (His full statement is below.)
The New York Times and CNN were among the first to get a denial from a Paterno family spokesman that the 85-year-old, battling lung cancer, had died. By then several news outlets and reporters, including TheWrap, The Huffington Post, CNN's Anderson Cooper and Howard Kurtz, the host of the journalism standards show "Reliable Sources," had written about the death, all after the CBS report. Even the group Poynter, a champion of accurate journalism, tweeted that Paterno had died.
All the reporters and organizations quickly changed their stories as the CBS account came into doubt. So began an ugly game of finger pointing in a media hall of mirrors, where primary sources were initially hard to come by.
The blame fell on CBS, which tried to pass it to the small student site. But it also lay with those who cited CBS's story without confirming it independently. (The Wrap cited the CBS death story and linked to it in the second paragraph of an earlier version of this story, without first contacting a Paterno spokesman. We regret this error.)
The situation was a rare one in which major news outlets were in disagreement over whether someone was alive or dead. Paterno's sons promptly took to Twitter to say he was alive.
"I appreciate the support & prayers. Joe is continuing to fight," son Jay Paterno tweeted.
"CBS report is wrong – Dad is alive but in serious condition. We continue to ask for your prayers and privacy during this time," tweeted his brother, Scott Paterno.
Penn State added in another tweet: "Paterno family spokesman told media outlets at 9 p.m. Joe has not passed, is in serious condition."
The initial death report came after several outlets reported earlier Saturday that Paterno was in serious condition. So when the CBS report came, it was not out of the blue.
Cooper tweeted that Paterno had died, but soon updated with another tweet: "His family denies this to cnn."
Kurtz also tweeted that Paterno had died, even as the dispute raged over whether he had.
"I say again, sad ending to a long career: Joe Paterno confirmed dead," he wrote, before tweeting again, several minutes later, "CORRECTION: No confirmation on Paterno death, though he's gravely ill. That's from a CBS Sports blog."
Celebrity death hoaxes are exceedingly common in the era of Twitter, and news agencies sometimes accidentally post pre-written obituaries prematurely. But news outlets rarely report a death outright and are later found to be wrong.
Paterno, the winningest coach in college football, was fired last year in the fallout from the Penn State child molestation scandal. He was accused of telling his superiors, but not police, when he learned that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of raping a boy. Sandusky has pleaded not guilty to sexual abuse charges. Paterno has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Read the retraction and resignation letter from the managing editor of Onward State:
Earlier this evening, Onward State reported that Joe Paterno had passed away; however, the mountain of evidence stacked opposite that report became too much to ignore. At this time, I would like to issue an official retraction of our earlier tweets.
I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.
In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm. All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility.
I can only hope and pray that the outstanding work our writers and photographers do on a day-to-day basis is not overshadowed by the events of tonight. I understand that our reputation is in serious question, but I hope you will continue to stand by us as we do everything in our power to make amends.
To begin that process, I will be stepping down from my post as Managing Editor, effective immediately. I take full responsibility for the events that transpired tonight, and for the black mark upon the organization that I have caused.
I ask not for your forgiveness, but for your understanding. I am so very, very, sorry, and we at Onward State continue to pray for Coach Paterno.