Twitter Legitimacy Through Speed: A Sportswriting Perspective

Last Thursday’s Major League Baseball trade deadline kept baseball fans on high alert. Big deals were struck, fan favourites shipped out of town, and some writers even declared it the best deadline day in the history of the league.

One of those writers was Ken Rosenthal.

Rosenthal, a reporter with FOX Sports, is one of the league’s best analysts. As FOX’s on-field reporter for each of the last five World Series, he’s become a well-known and likable authority on the game and a go-to source for rumours, news, and insight.

Online, he’s racked up over 500,000 Twitter followers, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a number of fans were receiving their deadline updates from him. The day was a busy one for him, frantically tweeting and re-tweeting any reliable information.

A new trend was also emerging throughout the day, though. While Rosenthal worked his own sources and would try to confirm rumoured deals, he would also tweet recognition of whoever was responsible for first breaking the story, usually local affiliates with the team, but also national analysts with competing networks, like CBS.

It’s not a new development that Twitter has created an all-new race to be the first person to break a story. In fact, in almost all cases of breaking news, reporters turn to Twitter to try to scoop all other competitors. As Brendan Nyhan wrote for CJR in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt, “Fast and wrong beats slow and right.”

Rosenthal’s approach, though, was starkly different. He was giving credit to the reports/analysts who first broke the story. It flew totally in the face of what we’ve grown used to, where all outlets report the same story as their own.

Why did he do it? Two possibilities come to mind. The first is that he was actually showing some journalistic integrity in recognizing the source of the information, something that hasn’t transferred over well with the role of news in social media and blogging platforms. (The Toronto Star was famously involved in a riff with Gawker last year when they claimed to have an exclusive on the Rob Ford video story, and didn’t credit the New York-based news site in their article.)

Another factor is probably due to the tight-knit, old boy’s club-type community of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Even while they are competitors, these reporters do have a mutual respect among one another, and don’t want to steal their thunder. For some of the smaller, local reporters, it might be a simple act to acknowledge their good work and hope to promote their personal brand among ball fans.

If either of these possibilities (or a combination of both) are true, it’s something that should be acknowledged. Rosenthal has way more followers than any of those other sources could dream of (even Jon Heyman is stuck at around 300,000), so it’s unlikely casual ball fans would even be aware of their work on breaking the news. It demonstrates a recognition of the heel-toe work local analysts do, and celebrates the craft of embedding oneself with the team and building trusting relationships to capture that story – aka important qualities of sports journalism.

Underneath the surface, though, it still reflects the problematic trend of “needing” to be first – and rewarding the race to break. Obviously, trying to get the scoop on a story is an ancient practice in journalism, but the vitality it now plays is concerning, as it continues to allow misinformation to flourish.

As one example, a number of fake “Ken Rosenthal” accounts were created throughout the deadline, trying to deceive people by adding an extra underscore or switching a letter mid-name, but allowing our brains to interpret it as the actual name.

The MLB Network, wanting to quickly spread the news of a deal, took the bait.

Jim Bowden, of ESPN, announced a trade involving the New York Yankees that never happened.

Obviously, misinformation about a baseball trade isn’t as damning as that of providing the wrong name of a mass murderer. Yet we need to come to grips with this race to be first, and the baseball deadline reminds us of that. The “throw everything at the wall and hope something factual sticks” approach can’t survive forever.

The thinking is that if you break a huge story, you’ll get name recognition, which will both boost your personal brand but also that of your employer (be it a newspaper, a blog, a television/radio outlet, whatever). You’ll also increase your followers, which means more people clicking through to links on your stories, bringing potential page view ad bucks to whoever is hosting your work.

Reporters must remember that getting it wrong can be a seriously damaging blow to your reputation. As much as it bothers readers, or leaves you open to defamation allegations, the real threat is the impact it leaves open to your brand.

Keeping with sports, Aaron Ward, a hockey analyst with TSN, famously tweeted that fan favourite Jarome Iginla was traded to the Boston Bruins. Not long after, it came out he was actually traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The network, which employs some of the brightest analysts in the sports, remained relatively unscathed, though apologies for the misinformation were published.

For Ward – a three-time Stanley Cup winner – however, discussions on hockey boards across the web popped up inquiring whether he should remain as an analyst, or pack his bags. The New England Sports Network (the local broadcaster for the Bruins) bit on the scoop, publishing a post online that Iginila had been traded to Beantown.

In conclusion, we should continue to celebrate the tremendous journalism that a number of reporters are doing in locker rooms and press boxes across the world, whether it be for a small community college campus paper or an international broadcaster like ESPN. However, the race to be first must be gauged carefully, and those working in sports shouldn’t consider themselves immune from the blowback that their colleagues working in the news section face.

It shouldn’t matter who pens an 140-character breaking news alert first. It should be about getting the story – the whole story – correct, analyzing it, putting it in the context, and finding reactions. In other words, what good sports journalism’s always been about.

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