Mike Wise made his point, all right, but he did it by sacrificing a degree of his own credibility and that of one of the most venerable newspapers in the world.
"Roethlisberger will get five games, I’m told," the Washington Post columnist tweeted last August, alerting the world about the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback receiving a suspension from the NFL.
It was a lie, a hoax, perpetrated with the intent of tackling the issue of declining journalistic standards in this age of immediacy. And as planned, the false info was picked up by multiple outlets, including some reputable publications that spread it across the web like plague rats.
Wise, however, didn't foresee the blowback, which involved a monthlong suspension from the Post and absorbing the outrage of his readers, who expected him to be a credible source. It was a painful, costly lesson, one of several broached during a panel discussion about chasing rumors Friday morning at the national APSE convention in Boston.
"I saw my career flash in front of my eyes for (seven) words done for a dumb radio bit," Wise told a banquet room full of editors, including his boss, as the conversation ranged from the perils of reporting in real time to the importance of "old school" journalistic standards in social media.
Mary Byrne of the Associated Press called Twitter "the greatest tip service in the world," but stressed that it was only a tool, and that just because somebody tweets something doesn't make it true. A vetting process that includes receiving independent confirmation remains vital to maintaining credibility.
When Shaquille O'Neal recently tweeted that he was retiring, the AP verified the news with his agent before running a story on the wire.
"Even stories that appear good can throw us off track," Byrne said.
She urges journalists to "Think. Then tweet."
Adam Schefter of ESPN explained how social media allows stories to whip around the world in minutes, and that there's a danger associated with reporting stories as they unfold in real time. Something true 30 minutes ago may no longer be accurate.
"You can do play-by-play, minute-by-minute on all these things, and it's absurd," Schefter said. "You're better off exercising caution. … People don't take into account that things happen. Maybe you want french toast for breakfast, and at the last minute you change your mind and want pancakes. Someone will hold you to that."
He also cautioned about being diligent when re-tweeting information, because a re-tweet from a respected journalist is perceived as an endorsement of the info, a corroboration of the story. He learned that the hard way.
"Twitter does not exist in a separate universe," Schefter said. "It's one way of disseminating info. if you're wrong there, then you and your credibility take a hit."
This age of immediacy is a more perilous and demanding time to report the news than ever before, yet the old adage of "get it first, but first get it right" continues to ring true.
Make that extra call. Do the legwork yourself. Get the confirmation. And for the love of Mike Wise, take a few minutes before deciding whether to push send.
Contact Jason Wolf at (336) 373-7034 or firstname.lastname@example.org