"Journalism has reached the point at which we can report on the death of a major sports figure - and come within a half-day of getting it right," Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple wrote sarcastically on his blog.
The incident started with a report from a popular website about Penn State football called Onward State, which posted an article announcing Paterno's death at 8:45 p.m. Saturday and promoted the story on Twitter. It said its source for the scoop was an email that had been sent to Penn State athletes.
Because Onward State has a reputation as a credible source for information about the Nittany Lions, other outlets who saw the tweet were quick to seize on the article.
CBS Sports published an obituary of the legendary coach, although it made no mention of the Onward State report, and the Huffington Post - which also didn't credit the Penn State-oriented site - posted an article about the death of Paterno minutes later. The news spread rapidly on Twitter, aided by a service called BreakingNews that has 3.5 million followers.
But the information was wrong. Today, Onward State said that the email forwarded to its reporter was a cruel hoax, and that a second reporter - who "had not been honest" - told editors he had confirmed the bogus information.
The entire episode lasted less than an hour - many top news sites never went with the story, and those who did corrected it quickly. But yesterday, there was great angst among media critics who wonder if this problem is here for good as breaking news moves to the Wild West of social networks.
"Getting it first is [almost] never about the users," complained New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. "But it's always about the journalists."
He said that on Twitter.
- Will Bunch