Responsibility and Controversy for Journalists Using Twitter- By: Alec Hamilton

In today’s digitally run world, the pressure on news agencies and journalists to be the first to break a story, or provide a constant stream of news to our readers is immense.  This is especially true of reporters covering live events, whether it’s sports, entertainment, or public proceedings.  Combine this pressure with easy access to social media and the Internet, and situations form that can quickly turn to disaster.  Gone are the days when a reporter covered the day’s breaking news, fact-checked it and it went out the next day after being thoroughly vetted.  Today, stories go out before they are fact-checked and reviewed, and as a result the risks of mistakes being made are much higher.  Writers can easily get in trouble for incorrect facts, or in the case I am writing about, a incorrect tweet

Last January, Associated Press reporter Jon Krawczynski covered a Minnesota Timberwolves- Houston Rockets profession basketball game.  Partway through the second quarter, referee Bill Spooner called a foul on a Timberwolves player.  Krawczynski claimed that when Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis complained to Spooner, Spooner replied that Rambis would “get it back” and soon after Spooner called a foul on Houston.  Krawczynski Tweeted this exchange and Spooner sued Krawczynski and the Associated Press for defamation and $75,000 in damages.

Twitter logo by adria.richards via flickr.com

In the lawsuit, Spooner denies making any such comment.  The reason Spooner sued over a seemingly inane comment criticizing his refereeing, which is common throughout all professional sports, is that the comment implies that Spooner is somehow “fixing” or affecting the outcome of the game.  All National Basketball Association referees are particularly sensitive to this issue after former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was convicted in a gambling scandal involving the NBA where he admitted to providing inside information on games to gamblers.

This brings us back to the overarching question regarding this situation and many others:  Should we as journalists show more restraint in our use of social media in order to fact-check and avoid sticky situations such this?  If Krawczynski had held onto this tweet, investigated it, and followed it up it could have turned out to be a full-fledged story.  Instead, he went ahead, tweeted, and is now involved in a serious lawsuit.   I do not know his intent with the tweet, whether just as an aside, satire, or in legitimate outrage over the situation, but obviously he did not think through the consequences or potential harm this could cause without proper follow-through.  This entire situation raises the following questions:

  • What are the disadvantages of reporting through social media like Twitter?
  • Should there be more checks and fail-safes for those involved in real-time media like Twitter or blogging?
  • How much responsibility should journalists bear for their tweets both “on and off” the job?
  • How do we as journalists prevent ourselves and our colleagues from committing this kind of mistake?  Is it even possible to prevent?
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5 responses to “Responsibility and Controversy for Journalists Using Twitter- By: Alec Hamilton

  1. Reporters should always strive to deliver the truth. While Twitter and other social media are effective tools in spreading stories quickly, accuracy and credibility must always be kept in mind. This is a struggle, but as long as there’s doubt, I say don’t send that tweet. Once the mistake is made, there’s no going back, so it’s imperative to double-check before making a post. Even if you’re trying to report the story first, if you lose your credibility in this field, you have nothing left.

    When it comes to a journalist being “off the job,” it depends on the person: A lot of journalists have something on their Twitter profile saying that the thoughts and opinions expressed are their own, not those of the company. However, when the reporter is tweeting both personal and professional messages, it might be time to create separate accounts.

  2. Again, everyone should remember that the Internet can – and will – come back to haunt you. This is especially true if you’re in the public eye: with fans, critics and reporters watching, chances are that someone will use their own social media to report a celebrity’s mistake.

    I agree with Jeff that reporters should always work towards the truth: like you mentioned in your post, Alex, we are never truly “off the clock.” Thus we must work toward a general, professional presence on the web – this applies to frustrated basketball players as well. Something you post on Facebook can be accessed at all hours of the day, any day of the week – an interesting phenomenon that we haven’t seen before in the industry.

  3. Emily - Drake University

    I agree: it’s better to be safe than sorry. Obviously this is new territory for a lot of publications and rules haven’t really been written yet. I think we should think of posting to Twitter and other social media as publishing and take it just as seriously. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the rush of being the first but if what you say first isn’t the truth, it’s a lot worse.

    With all the ways to stay connected, the line between “on and off the clock” is being blurred. Especially for Twitter accounts that are associated with a publication, even if it’s a single reporter’s personal account. I’m interested to see how this plays out for people our age. Perhaps our Twitter accounts will start being looked at when we apply for jobs too.

  4. I agree that everything a reporter posts should be treated as “published”, it just makes things clearer. Also, if news agencies do not have a Twitter code of conduct or guidelines they should develop one fast- even if it is just to avoid situations like this.

  5. The example in this post reminds me of the Arizona/Gabby Giffords shooting in January. I was on twitter and read the tweets from multiple credible news organizations that she was dead. At the same time, I saw other tweets saying her condition was unknown. As a reader, I was left confused, frustrated, and feeling as though I needed to fact check my news.
    So, yes – check your facts. In the words of Davy Crockett, “First make sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

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