A Washington Post sports columnist was suspended for a month on Tuesday after the newspaper concluded that he was too cavalier with the publication's reputation when he intentionally used his Twitter account to plant a false story.
Mike Wise, a well-known columnist at The New York Times before moving to the Post in 2004, was out to illustrate how sloppy sports journalism has become in the age of shoot-first blogging and social networking. On Monday, he posted to Twitter this message: "Roethlisberger will get five games, I'm told."
He was referring to Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback for the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers, who faces a six-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Recently, there's been speculation that Roethlisberger may see his suspension reduced. Wise tried to exploit that to show how easy it is for people to plant false information online and how little effort is spent in checking facts.
Hours after posting, Wise revealed during his radio show that the post was a hoax. The backlash, which he obviously miscalculated, was swift and fiercely critical. Many sports bloggers seethed and argued that Wise and his newspaper were finished as credible news sources.
"I'm sorry if I threw anyone off in my zeal to show the danger of social networking and who runs with stuff," Wise wrote.
Wise is a former co-worker of mine. He's smart, one of journalism's best sportswriters, and is a typically a very funny guy. He likes to tweak people. This stunt wasn't funny to Post managers and readers, though, and I'm sure that Wise would be the first to admit that his better judgment took a hiatus on Monday.
In addition to the ethical questions, Wise also failed to correctly calculate Twitter's growing influence as a news source. If he looks upon Twitter as a playground or lab experiment, he should know that 190 million people visit the site every month. Many use it as a news aggregation service and early-warning system. Hot stories spread fast via the service. It has become a simple and efficient way to interact with multiple media sources, pundits, and any Joe who proves trustworthy and knowledgeable.
But even in the Digital Age, some of the old rules still apply: people don't like being misled.
"In the end, [the fake Twitter post] proved two things," Wise wrote after criticism started to mount. "1.) I was right about nobody checking facts or sourcing, and 2.) I'm an idiot."
No. 1, at least, is wrong. His exercise proved nothing. Wise's experiment was flawed from the start.
On his Twitter account, Wise identifies himself as a Post reporter. If he were trying to prove that nobody checks out unverified information, he must know that the Post's name automatically lends the information credibility. It's not unreasonable for other journalists to assume that a report--even in the form of a tweet--from a Post writer was properly checked out.
The Post helped expose the conspiracy behind the Watergate break-in and bring down a sitting president (Richard Nixon). Why shouldn't anyone believe the paper when it says a quarterback will see a five-game suspension?
If Wise was trying to prove that information on Twitter was somehow of lesser value than stories from traditional news sources, he helped prove the opposite.