This commentary was originally published on the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism Website in 2012.
The most provocative statement I heard at the American Copy Editors Society regional meeting at Penn State last fall was this, from TBD.com community host Daniel Victor: Not using Twitter makes a journalist “almost as negligent as not using the phone.”
Left mostly unexplored, though, was this: How should journalists be using Twitter?
As I followed the two biggest stories in Penn State football this month—freshman quarterback Rob Bolden’s attempt to transfer and defensive coordinator Tom Bradley’s pursuit of the Pitt head coaching job—it was clear that there’s no consensus.
I’m still finding my way on Twitter myself, and it turns out that I’m in good company. Said Chris Otto, sports editor of the York Daily Record: “I’ll be honest, [our strategy] changes by the month.” Said Cory Giger, Penn State beat writer for the Altoona Mirror: “I don’t think anybody has the answer yet.”
Take, for example, these opposite approaches:
Giger spoke with Bolden’s father, Rob Sr., a couple of hours after news broke Jan. 2 that the freshman quarterback wanted to transfer. He immediately announced on Twitter that he had spoken to Bolden Sr., then transcribed the quotes. Before writing a word of the story, he tweeted a link to the quotes, which he had posted on his Mirror blog and the Facebook page for his nightly sports radio talk show, Sports Central with Cory Giger. An hour or so later, the finished story replaced the quotes at the same link.
“You can type up the quotes instantly without having to take that extra 30 or 40 minutes, or an hour, to formulate the framework for a story,” Giger said. “I wanted to get the quotes out—to draw people to in, do the story, and then draw people in again.”
The response: Giger went from 450 to 640 Twitter followers in a couple of days, something he attributes in part to “having the right people follow you.” Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com’s Big Ten reporter, retweeted Giger’s report, as did Erin Andrews. The story received 19,500 hits, double the Mirror’s previous top story: a visit from Demi Moore and Ashton Kuchner.
“So we have empirical evidence that Twitter is drawing people to our website,” Giger said. “That’s our No. 1 goal. Well, our No. 1 goal is to monetize the website, but first we’ve got to prove we can get people there.”
Five days later, Audrey Snyder, beat writer for The Daily Collegian, found herself in a similar situation. Joe Paterno had refused to grant Bolden a release, and she was interviewing Bolden’s high school coach, who said that the quarterback would return to campus for the spring semester. As she was asking questions, part of her was wondering, “Should I be tweeting this?”
Snyder decided against it, saying later, “I wanted to wait and see if I could hear from Rob, to give him his say.” She left a message for Bolden, then wrote the story. Bolden didn’t respond by the time she finished the story—meaning, in part, that he hadn’t denied it—so she posted the story to the Collegian’s website—and a link on the @psufootblog Twitter account.
The response: The scoop got more hits than any other football story on the Collegian’s website, including the newspaper’s extensive (and impressive) coverage of Joe Paterno’s 400th victory, even though it was posted Jan. 7, four days before the semester started and the Collegian began officially publishing again.
Between those stories, the other big story broke, putting the pitfalls of Twitter into focus: On Jan. 5, Pittsburgh TV station WTAE reported that Bradley had been hired. It posted a link on its Twitter feed.
Giger, the York Daily Record and Rich Scarcella of the Reading Eagle—among many others, traditional media and beyond—retweeted WTAE’s post. Why? Because they considered WTAE was a credible news source.
Says Scarcella, “You can’t ignore that.” Says Otto, “To me, it’s not any different than them saying it on the air. … At the point that they’re saying it, I’m passing it along.”
No one just retweeted the story; everyone worked their own sources hard for the rest of the night. Beat writers also tweeted and retweeted links to a blog post by David Jones of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, who cited a Penn State source in writing that two Penn State players had received a text message from Bradley saying that he was leaving.
And then Penn State linebacker Nate Stupar tweeted, “Tom Bradley got Pitt job! Congrats!” Was that confirmation?
“I don’t know where we are with verifying the accuracy of a tweet,” Giger said. “How different are quotes in a tweet as opposed to a quote if you sit and talk to someone? The way the media seems to work right now, whether it’s LeBron James or John Elway on the Denver coaching situation, it does seem to count as a quote.”
Giger retweeted it, adding that Stupar was either “well informed or misinformed.” Many others did the same. The corner of the Internet that follows Penn State went wild.
But within 45 minutes, Jones had retracted his original post and replaced it with a heartfelt apology. Within two hours, Pitt had released a statement denying that a hire had been made. Stupar followed up with another tweet: “To all followers…I hear what you hear. #don’t-hate haha.”
Which is why the Collegian didn’t take Stupar’s tweet seriously. Snyder said college students often use Twitter as a form of instant messaging, and she and her beat partners don’t think that’s reliable or official.
Plus, when the Bolden news broke on Jan. 2, they were returning from the Outback Bowl and ended up having an ethics discussion at about 15,000 feet. Snyder said that upon seeing that former Penn State QB Daryll Clark tweet that he heard Bolden “was gone,” they contacted Clark to ask, “How do you know that?” When he didn’t respond, they didn’t think the information was good enough to use.
Similar discussions are happening in newsrooms everywhere, well beyond those that cover Penn State football. Since CNN and NPR reported erroneously that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been killed in a shooting in Tucson, there’s been a great conversation about taking responsibility on Twitter; check Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error site for particularly thought-provoking coverage.
As for me? I keep hearing another line from Daniel Victor at that ACES conference. When you get tips from Twitter, he said, “There is absolutely no difference in your ethical responsibility to check it out.” Does that extend to retweeting? I’m not sure; that’s a little more complicated. But overall, that’s a great rule, no matter what platform you’re reporting for.
Lori Shontz, part of the Curley Center’s board of directors since the beginning, spent nearly 18 years in the sports departments of daily newspapers before becoming a senior editor at The Penn Stater alumni magazine in 2009. She’s also an adjunct lecturer in Penn State’s College of Communications. E-mail her at lms134.psu.edu, and join her in finding her way on Twitter at @lshontz.