Why do sports writers keep getting burned by fake news?

The other day, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports got embarrassed on Twitter. Rosenthal - who’s actually a very good reporter - retweeted out a report of a Tim Hudson contract extension that turned out to be bogus.

A headshot of

It seems like every so often, something like this happens. False information is put out on social media (almost always Twitter), a reporter at a legacy media outlet picks it up and shares it, and then it’s proven to be wrong. It leads to mocking, hand wringing, and general Helen Lovejoy-ness.

It’s easy to mock the reporters who fall for this - and they should be mocked for not doing their job correctly - and the schadenfreude is particularly strong when it’s a national reporter who gets burned. It’s also easy to fall into normative judgements about how social media is ruining journalism or j-school bromides about how it’s better to be second and right than first and wrong.

But what really interests me is why this keeps happening? Why are reporters getting burned by bad info online?

Part of it is the culture of the scoop. Scoops are the goal of reporting. They’re professional currency for journalists. You are judged by how many stories you’ve broken, by the quality of stories you’ve broken*. Part of it is journalism ego - wanting to be first.

(*I wonder how much that’s changed over the years, particularly in sports, and what kind of impact the internet, with its emphasis on breaking news, has had on that culture.)

But I think there’s something else at play here, and it’s an attitude that my good friend Dr. Molly Yanity articulated in a Twitter discussion about this topic.

@Jimmy_Sanderson@CadChica@SportTechie@bpmoritz@SportMediaProf I used to blog abt my chase for news. "Sources have told me..." etc. ...

— Molly Yanity (@mollyyanity) November 20, 2013


@Jimmy_Sanderson@CadChica@SportTechie@bpmoritz@SportMediaProf ... That stuff wasn't published in the paper until it was dead to rights.

— Molly Yanity (@mollyyanity) November 20, 2013


It’s an attitude that has surfaced in my own research. Reporters view print as something that’s almost sacrosanct, worthy of top-notch ethics and sourcing. Online? It’s very different. Reporters seem to have more lax standards online. They’re more likely to put rumors, “things I’m hearing,” bits of news from sources, online and on Twitter. It’s almost as if online is viewed as more ephemeral, so standards are a little more relaxed, whereas print is seen as permanent, so standards are higher. I’ve called it the hierarchy of print - print is viewed as the most important part of a journalists’ work, with online coming second. Online work is viewed as the work-in-progress, the notes, the real-time info, but the real news comes at the end of the day with the story. It’s why I called one of my papers “The First Draft of Journalism,” because that’s how several sports writers I talked to viewed blogging.

It’s an interesting, institutionalized value in journalism that may help explain why these things keep happening. It’s not that journalists don’t take their reporting online seriously. They do. It’s just there are different institutionalized standards for print vs. online. Understanding that the standard most reporters have for online news appears to be more rough draft than polished product may help us understand why reporters like Rosenthal seem to keep getting burned.