The legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno died Sunday morning, according to a statement released by his family. But for at least a short time on Saturday evening, untold numbers of Internet readers thought the Nittany Lions’ beloved, embattled ‘JoePa’ had actually passed the night before, thanks to an erroneous news report that spread quickly around the web.
At 8:45 p.m., while most news organizations were in the middle of covering the results of the hectic South Carolina GOP Primary, a Penn State student-news organization published a report stating that Joe Paterno had passed away. The news website, Onward State, cited an email supposedly sent to football players announcing Paterno’s passing and published a news alert, pushing it out via Facebook and Twitter. (The original tweet has since been deleted, but hundreds of retweets are still available.)
Larger news outlets quickly latched onto the message, publishing standing obituaries based on Onward State’s report. CBSSports.com was among the first to post an article, which began:
CBS’s report, citing Onward State, sparked the interest of hundreds of other media outlets. The report of Paterno’s death, linking to the CBS article, was tweeted by influential Twitter feed @BreakingNews, which boasts 3.5 million followers. (TIME briefly posted a news alert on our homepage, citing the CBS report.)
But other news outlets, including the Associated Press, worked to verify the death. That seems to be where the original story broke down. The error was widely cautioned by New York Times sports reporter Mark Viera, citing the Paterno family spokesman.
And the rumors were put to rest by Joe Paterno’s son, Jay, who took to Twitter to clear the confusion.
After the initial flurry of reporting, sources were quick to retract their statements. CBS wrote that their “mistake was the result of a failure to verify the original report.” And perhaps the ultimate casualty Saturday night was the purveyor of that original report. Onward State’s managing editor posted a mea culpa on Facebook just three hours after the erroneous report had flooded the web. “I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State would be cited by the national media, and today, I sincerely wish it never had been,” Devon Edwards wrote. “To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for misleading you.”
Onward State had been a close source of information on Paterno’s recent health decline following complications from cancer surgery [EM] a diagnosis which only emerged after he was forced out of his coaching job in the wake of child sex abuse allegations against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Earlier Saturday, the student news organization’s website was crippled by an onslaught of traffic after the publication reported Paterno was pulled off a ventilator.
When the news of Paterno’s death came – for real, this time – Sunday morning, news outlets were far more cautious in their reporting. But it was a statement from the family that verified his death. ”His loss leaves a void in our lives that will never be filled. He died as he lived. He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been.”