How Twitter Accidentally Killed JoePa Too Soon

Social media has changed the way we learn about and react to the deaths of celebrities.

Joe Paterno has died. If you were on the Internet, you were probably pretty angry about it for one reason or another.

On Saturday, Penn State student blog Onward State—which, for the most part, has been praised by PSU alums for its coverage of the Penn State child abuse scandal—reported Joe Paterno was dead. Football players had just received an email confirming JoePa’s death, the site said.

The story spread across the Internet; MSNBC-owned @BreakingNews eventually passed along the link to its 3.5 million followers. The report was false; Onward State managing editor Devon Edwards apologized and stepped down. (Two months earlier, he’d blasted “a media that came to Happy Valley with one goal in mind: burying our iconic coach.”) Thus, the discussion of Joe Paterno’s actual death the following day focused on the erroneous blog post and other media outlets who’d passed along the false report, including CBS Sports and the Huffington Post.

The media killing someone early is not exactly a new trend. It’s been almost a year since several news outlets reported the death of Gabrielle Giffords when the congresswoman survived the tragic shooting near Tucson. False death reports, though, are magnified in the age of instant news and social media. The inaccurate account of Paterno’s passing had greater impact because of how quickly it spread.

Celebrity deaths used to be one-sided deifications. “I dread the deaths of certain super celebrities,” George Carlin wrote in Brain Droppings. “Not because I care about them, but because all of the shit I have to endure on television when one of them dies. All those tributes and retrospectives. And the bigger the personality, the worse it is.” Joe Paterno was a celebrity, too, a particularly beloved one at Penn State. He has always been held up by the media as standing for morals in a college football world viewed as decadent and depraved.

News outlets shouldn’t have to be reminded to get confirmation on stories, especially when dealing with death. But the hunger for glory is as strong for journalists as it is with anyone else. It’s easy to say no one would remember who reported a death first, but I think if Onward State’s report had been correct, people would be tripping over each other to make sure the world knew the student journalists who broke the story. A reporter’s “brand” is important in the modern media age, for better or worse. No amount of hand-wringing over the perils of attempting to be first will stop this trend. People make careers over being first on a big story. There are no excuses for being wrong, but it’s easy to see how it happened when a journalist’s Twitter account is as important as his resumé.

However, any Penn State alums hoping for a JoePa pity party were disappointed if they turned to social media.

Tweets calling Joe Paterno a great man received responses calling him a failure for not doing enough to stop Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse. Even the family’s statement—“ He died as he lived. He fought hard until the end” –was met with, “Not hard enough for those kids.” People even amused themselves; the best Twitter parody account, @FanSince09, was retweeting people accidentally calling him “Couch Paterno.” As usual, the Westboro Baptist Church shared its opinion, saying JoePa is in “hell.” All of this led to angry conversations on Twitter and Facebook, people upset with each other over their opinions of a football coach’s death.

This is how we do death in the age of social media. There are no one-sided stories. Some make jokes to laugh at death like a less-lyrical John Donne. Some take joy in pointing out the flaws of the recently deceased. Some like to flaunt society’s conventions of not speaking ill of the dead. Some people are just mean.

In the case of Joe Paterno, there are many who believed his failure to have “done more” after receiving a report of child abuse wipe out the rest of his accomplishments. Their anger is real, and they have every right to their opinions—as do those who think JoePa was a saint.

The death of divisive figures—and as incredible as it seems, the events of the past few months have made Joe Paterno a divisive figure—will cause this type of reaction. Death may not be mighty and dreadful, but it’s going to make you angry.