Twitter on Sports Journalism
The efficiencies of social media have all but replaced the need for beat reporting as digital mediums continue to change the way information is disseminated and received. Pint-sized computers and handheld smart phones have made it easy to bypass conventional media outlets to break news and professional athletes, teams and sports organizations have all followed suit, posting their own messages on Twitter to mixed reviews. But are countless hours spent online contributing to the demise of traditional reporting? Is the lack of connectedness leading to journalistic failure when the need is less about accountability and more about being the first to break a story? Has the modern sports journalist simply been replaced by 140 characters? These are all valid questions when considering the impact that Twitter has had on sports journalism. Fans of old-fashioned journalism are certain to suggest that Twitter cannot replace the comprehensive coverage that a journalist can provide. Moreover, people tweeting on Twitter generally lack the objectivity that sports journalists would have about an issue, introducing an untold amount of bias into reporting.
On the other hand, Twitter’s appeal is not that it is a neutral source of information. On the contrary, fans of Twitter not only know that the information they are getting is biased, but actually seem to enjoy getting individual perspectives about sports-related issues. Followers may choose to piece together their own interpretations of various tweets to come up with an individual perspective about a story, rather than rely upon any single individual’s perspective. Moreover, while the 140 character format necessarily limits the amount of information that can be conveyed in a single tweet, individuals may use multiple tweets to convey information, and followers can choose multiple sources for the story. To assume that information would be less comprehensive than that provided by a traditional sports journalist is to assume that the follower uses a single tweet to gain information about an event or an incident, which is simply not a realistic assumption. Given the realities of Twitter, it is possible, if not probable, that Twitter, along with other similar forms of social media, could entirely replace traditional sports journalism.
Beginnings of Twitter
For a social phenomenon that has helped change the face of modern media, Twitter is really very young. In early 2006, a podcasting company called Odeo, Inc., located in South Park, San Francisco, was facing tremendous competition from industry heavyweights, and decided to reinvent themselves (Sagolla). One of the people in the company came up with the idea of using SMS to give messages to small groups (Sagolla). The initial idea was that the service could be used to inform people about local events (Sagolla). The group went through several different demos. “Obvious Corp was born as an incubator with Twttr as its sole project” (Sagolla). The group acquired Twitter.com and re-branded, incorporating the 140 character limit so that messages would not be split into multiple texts (Sagolla). The new company used Austin music festival South by Southwest as a launching point for the service. Twitter won in the blog category and rapidly expanded into social media (Sagolla). Soon, it was a real presence in all areas of popular culture, including sports. Anyone who questions the value of Twitter need only understand the role it has played in the world. “In five years, Twitter has become an increasingly valuable tool for communication, powerful enough to help spur uprisings in the Middle East that have toppled governments” (Holmes). Clearly, as a form of social media, Twitter is extremely influential.
Furthermore, “sports journalism, in particular, seems to be a realm where Twitter has assumed much influence as a journalistic tool, perhaps for such reasons as a highly routinized news cycle and dedicated fan following” (Sears 1). Furthermore, sports journalism had been highly formulaic. “A reporter attends a post-practice media scrum and either writes or broadcasts the new he has gathered to the thousands of waiting fans” (Goodman). However, with athletes being able to engage in real-time conversations with one another and with fans, sports journalism changed. No longer were questions limited to those asked by athletes. Instead, fans could interact directly with athletes.
Twitter’s use by Athletes and Teams
Perhaps the best known use of Twitter is by athletes discussing their game or perhaps discussing their rivals. For example, Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis engaged in a very well-publicized war of words prior to their game. “Whereas ESPN or [a] local newspaper might have simply reported on what both players were saying to each other in the week leading up to the Sunday, Jan. 3 NFL game, it was actually the website Twitter that was the source for each and every verbal blow”(Goodman). Fans did not have to go to a third-party new source to learn about the “war” between the two players. By directly following either of the players, they were privy to the first-hand exchanges between the two players. The outcome of such exchanges for the world of sports is unknown. It seems like owners and managers would almost certainly like to retain a greater amount of control over what players say. However, the outcome for sports journalism is pretty clear. “Newspapers that depend heavily on sports coverage had better take note: a heated Twitter exchange between two opposing players is a lot more entertaining than reading dry copy about how Player A said such and such after practice and then having to wait until the next day to read the opposing city’s paper to see if Player B. responds” (Goodman).
One of the interesting things about Twitter is that it has been used to reveal dissension between owners, management, and teams in a way that more measured approaches to reporting have not been used. The 140 character format is quick and easy, which means that, in some cases, the editing and filtering one would expect in a traditional sports reporting scenario are not done in the Twitter environment. One example of this phenomenon is the tweets that have erupted over the current NBA lockout. When NBA owners declared a lockout in the labor impasses with the Players Association, Commissioner David Stern declared a total gag order on all involved on his side (Bradley). However, when a tweeter sent a message to Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, which expressed anger about the lockout, Arison seemed unable not to respond. He responded to the tweeter, “Honestly, u r barking at the wrong owner” (Bradley). These first two tweets led to the eruption of a conversation between Arison and fans. Some tweeters supported Arison, others still sought to hold him accountable for the lockout, but the fact was that the gag order’s effectiveness. “Fans spoke directly to an NBA owner” (Bradley). That scenario was simply improbably in the days before Twitter. Even more interesting is that the tweets revealed Arison’s position in the strike, which “intimated a rift between the ownership group that no one knew existed before. To that point, Stern and his top aide, Adam Silver, had delivered every utterance to the media on the owner’s behalfâ€¦With a few tweets, Arison had created a new angle on the lockout story” (Bradley). Of course, Arison was fined for violating the gag order, but the point is that the tweets changed the nature of the reporting on the lockout.
Of course, the most titillating use of Twitter by athletes, and others involved in sports, may be controversial tweets. Rashard Mendenhall and Reggie Bush are two athletes who have found themselves embroiled in controversy because of their tweets (Holmes). Todd Reynolds, a sports agent who commented about same-sex marriage, also started a Twitter controversy (Holmes). What those types of behaviors have proven is that “when it’s used recklessly, Twitter, which instantly transmits unfiltered ‘tweets,’ can cripple one’s reputation” (Holmes). In order to discourage reckless tweeting, teams have fined and suspended offending players, worried that a few reckless tweets could destroy a brand whose reputation has taken a significant amount of time, effort, and money to build.
Of course, player comments about personal issues seem to stir up as much controversy as comments on their sport or on other players. When Chris Henry died of a fall from the back of a truck, which occurred during an alleged domestic dispute, Jay Feely tweeted, “Chris Henry seemed to have turned his life around. But you can’t live on the brink of destruction without inevitably falling off the ledge” (Skolnick). Many people in the blogosphere reacted very negatively to his post, which they characterized as insensitive. However, Feely had not intended the post to be disrespectful. On the contrary, he had lost a cousin to domestic violence, and was actually very concerned about the issue. Unfortunately, the brevity of the media made it impossible for him to convey the total meaning of his message (Skolnick).
Has Twitter Replaced Traditional Journalists?
There are critics who suggest that Twitter is killing traditional sports journalism. In July 2011, “Seth” an old-school sports editor expressed his concern that sports journalists are becoming irrelevant. He uses the example of a blogger named Nate Dunlevy, who runs an Indianapolis Colts site, and wrote a story about NFL writer Len Pasquarelli’s claim that Colts’ defensive end Robert Mathis was planning to hold out of training camp once the NFL labor situation was settled (Seth). Pasquerelli had quoted anonymous sources in support of his story, did not quote Mathis, and did not make any reference to attempting to contact Mathis. This was in direct contravention of normal journalistic standards. According to Seth, when one makes “a claim about someone, [one] owe[s] them the opportunity to respond” (Seth). However, it was Dunlevy, a sports blogger, who got to the truth in the story. He tweeted Mathis to ask him about his intentions and Mathis denied that he intended to hold out of training camp. Assuming that the Twitter account actually belonged to Mathis, Seth found this to be “a striking example of the way a simple web-based tool has circumvented the sports media establishment” (Seth). While not every athlete will respond to tweets from people, but Twitter creates an endless stream of chatter that leads to “athletes getting fed up with misinformation or misrepresentation and using their own means to get their message out” (Seth).
Given that Twitter is such a recent phenomenon, it is difficult to discuss its history in the context of sports journalism. In just five years, it has exploded as a phenomenon. However, it is worth noting that Twitter participation has been led by the players and the fans. Many sports journalists were initially reluctant to embrace Twitter as a means of communication with their fans. However, other sports figures, particularly the players, began to embrace the medium as a way to communicate directly with their fans. They did so, in part, as a way of giving themselves a way to respond to misinformation or their perceptions that people were spreading misinformation. Furthermore, many of the players are celebrities outside of their sports, as well as in their sports. They would use Twitter to tweet about social events or happenings as well as about their sports. Twitter problems were plaguing athletes early as well. “As early as 2008, pro and college players were being fined or suspended for their 140-character missives” (Klemko). These efforts to punish some players who misused Twitter did nothing to stop the Twitter phenomenon.
Not only has Twitter changed who is reporting, but it also appears to have changed how people are reporting. Research by Sheffer and Schultz suggests that sports reporters have responded to the introduction of Twitter, not by using at a means of engaging in traditional sports reporting, but by making themselves more like the lay person using twitter (Sheffer and Schultz). According to self-reports by journalists, they say that they are using Twitter for breaking news and promotion (Sheffer and Schultz). However, when those tweets are subjected to independent analysis, it becomes clear that most of the content of the tweets is actually commentary and opinion.
Furthermore, as of this time, all prominent sports journalists are participating in Twitter. Michael Wilbon, a renowned sports journalist who worked for the Washington Post and currently works for ESPN, was the last hold-out in sports journalism. He “long avoided joining the social network, mocking the childish sounding site and professing to be above it” (Marcusa). However, in April 2011, Wilbon eventually succumbed to pressure from fans. First, with the creation of an account that posted quotes by Wilbon that had been made throughout the years, and were considered to be interesting, funny, or relevant to current circumstances (Marcusa). Second, Wilbon opened an actual Twitter account. The creation of a current Twitter account by Wilbon marks a shift in sports journalism. Wilbon’s own quotes about the creation of his account, in which he expresses the desire not to tweet something that will end up getting him terminated from his position about a sport journalist, demonstrate an awareness of the danger of social media. However, the pressure for him to open a Twitter account demonstrates how much fans have come to consider social media part of the overall sports process. Fans want to hear his “thoughts on smaller and more intimate thoughts that normally wouldn’t make a column or telecast” (Marcusa). More significantly, it demonstrates that social media has tremendous power in the world of sports. Someone posed the question, “If even Michael Wilbon, a man of repute in sports journalism, whose voice can be heard often and is easily accessible, opts for joining Twitter after years of openly refusing, then isn’t it almost vital for all to use to stay relevant” (Marcusa)? At this point in time, it certainly appears that the answer to that question is “yes.”
Like it or dislike it, the reality is that Twitter is not going anywhere anytime soon. That Twitter is not going anywhere means that people can continue to expect athletes, coaches, and other sports figures to continue to misuse the medium. “What coaches, teams and leagues are scrambling to figure out, is how to deal with a medium built upon spontaneity” (Klemko). Twitter’s intentional design was to permit easy communication between people, with edits, second drafts, or possibly even a second thought” (Klemko). Moreover, a looming lack of understanding about the power of social media makes people prone to making mistakes. They say things that they would not say in one-on-one scenarios or otherwise in public, but will post it in public, anyway.
The future of Twitter resides in educating athletes and other sports figures about the appropriate use of the medium. College-level athletes may already be vulnerable to having their social media monitored. “College programs that wish to keep tabs on students without banning social media are turning to companies like UDiligence, which provides software that monitors Facebook and Twitter accounts, scanning for images or terms that could bring scrutiny upon players and programs” (Klemko).
On a professional level, with personal computer usage, such a program would be less realistic, and probably not appropriate when monitoring adult communications. However, sports teams are taking concrete steps to prevent inappropriate communications by team members. They fine, suspend, and otherwise punish people for inappropriate tweets. Whether or not this behavior is permissible is a question to be answered in the future. There are certainly people concerned that monitoring someone’s Twitter usage in that manner has First Amendment implications, though the First Amendment technically only protects people against government infringement of freedom of speech.
One thing that is almost certainly in the future of Twitter is that it will have a volatile relationship with the sports figures that use it. Figures tweet regrettable things and often find themselves withdrawing from the media. This happens to people in other contexts as well, not just sports celebrities. People hire ghost tweeters, and it is not unheard of for a celebrity to hire someone to manage Twitter accounts. One can expect that Twitter management will become an emerging field in the entourages of sports figures.
Leagues are also wary of what the future holds for Twitter and athletes. “The risk is something teams and leagues are struggling to come to terms with. More than half of NBA players have Twitter accountsâ€¦in the NFL; more than 1,000 players spread across 32 teams maintain active accounts” (Klemko). In other words, the future guarantees that leagues are going to have to come up with comprehensive programs to deal with Twitter use by athletes or to suffer the consequences of out-of-control tweets.
While continued Twitter use is inevitable, it seems equally inevitable that Twitter users are going to grow more sophisticated in their use of the media. Right now, the social networking phenomenon imparts a false sense of intimacy which makes people more likely to make statements that they would not make in public. However, that false sense of intimacy is likely to decline. The likely result is that, while there will still be occasional tweet mistakes, the open communication about reasons behind lockouts or with players criticizing coaches, owners, or teammates will decline. Tweets will become progressively more managed, making them less like real-time communications and more like carefully crafted press communications. When this level of caution occurs, the need for professional sports journalists will be apparent once again.
It is impossible to deny that Twitter has helped change the landscape of sports journalism. Once confined to carefully orchestrated locker-room or press-conference exchanges between a small group of media and athletes, managers, and owners, modern sports reporting has become a real-time conversation between players, fans, and other people in the sporting world. In many ways, this has increased transparency, and let to a greater range of information for the sports fan. In other ways, it has led to an overabundance of information. Sports figures use Twitter as a means of spreading personal opinions that may be in conflict with their perceived roles as sports celebrities. It remains to be seen whether athletes, leagues, managers, coaches, and owners will learn the skills necessary to harness Twitter as a tool in media relations and use it in concert with sports journalists, or whether the sensationalization of the news will completely overwhelm the sports world.
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