SEO journalism has failed us again.
Last night a student website prematurely announced former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died, leading one veritable news organization and also the Huffington Post to erroneously publish his obituary. They wanted to be first, so fact checking didn’t seem to matter. Most shamefully of all, neither outlet sourced their information to the student site until it turned out to be wrong (at least give credit where credit is due if you can’t even pick up a phone to do your own reporting). Almost immediately, the false news went viral.
Paterno died early this morning, according to his family. Sadly though, the coach's loved ones had to spend part of his last night on earth refuting the greatly exaggerated news of his death.
The managing editor of the Penn State student website that broke the false news, Onward State, has already resigned. It’s obviously easier for a college senior to step down than a professional website editor, but let's give the kid credit, and also ask what the penalty to CBS and HuffPo should be. Both sites are actually getting even more traffic because of their mistake than they would be otherwise, as the media debate generates extra link juice that puts their obits to the top of Google queries about Paterno's death.
When it comes to future deaths, CBS has a built-in disincentive to repeat a mistake like this. A flub this huge stings the CBS brand of veritable news outlet, just as NPR was tarnished by erroneously reporting Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords' death. The Huffington Post, on the other hand, whose internal struggle is between serious reporting and obvious link-baiting, just gets more traffic. Being first has become a cornerstone to their business model, which is oftentimes incompatible with standard journalism practice. Independently confirming all reports and verifying sources, as the AP did, for instance, would stop HuffPo from being first so often.
This is not a lone error. It is an inevitable mishap in a media environment that frequently seems to value fast information over accurate information. For news organizations, being first means huge traffic. For consumers, hearing or reading information first means being the first to tweet it or put it on Facebook. Either way, the addiction to immediacy can be damaging in the long run.
Everyone should race to be first, of course, just as media outlets have always done. But they should do it based on their own reporting, or at the very least with proper attribution. Otherwise a scoop is based on false premises, and it's stealing clicks to boot. Alas, so long as being first puts people at the top of the search engines and in the lead of the Twitter-sphere, it's unlikely anything will change. Times are tough, and accuracy doesn't necessarily drive ad sales.