Saturday, October 16, 2010

Integrity in the World of Social Media

Hey all,

Like others, I'm not entirely sure what I should be posting up here in respects to my presentation. So, below you'll find my research paper in its entirety with links at the bottom to most of my sources. Also, here's the link to the video which I showed a clip of in class the other day:

And here's the full story:

       In an age when the internet has become the new information superhighway, that old adage that you can't always believe what you read appears to ring more and more true. Conspiracy theories manifest themselves at every turn, government cover ups are exposed on cites like Wikileaks, videos and photographs are often doctored to portray an event that is far from the truth. And the word spreads fast: social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter can turn anything from a news story to a rumor into common knowledge within minutes. This was the lesson that Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise learned when he fabricated knowledge about Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger's suspension using his Washington Post Twitter account. What supposedly was supposed to be a lesson about how easy it is to spread inaccurate information, however, backfired and left Wise desperately trying to maintain his own credibility as a journalist.
       On Monday, August 30, Wise used his Twitter account, which directly affiliated him with his job as a sports writer at the Washington Post, to spread the rumor via Twitter that Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's six game suspension for misconduct at a nightclub would be scaled back to five games. The Twitter post simply said “Roethlisberger will get five games, I'm told.” Several reporters, including those from the Miami Herald and ProFootballTalk, ran with Wise's report, posting stories citing Wise's tweet as fact. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk wrote:
          “So it would be a surprise if Roethlisberger gets more than four games. According to Mike Wise of the Washington Post, however, a surprise could be coming. Wise says, via Twitter, that Roethlisberger will get five games.” 1
       Wise revealed about an hour after his initial tweet that his post had been a hoax, which he claimed he had fabricated in hopes to test the accuracy of social media reporting and the dangers of using social network sites such as Twitter as accurate sources of news. In other words, he deliberately put out false information in order to see how far his story would make it without being fact checked.
        The revealing of Wise's hoax created an uproar within the journalism community, especially amongst the writers that had trusted his information. Florio attacked Wise's deliberate fallacy, and wrote: “Everyone in this business is wrong at some point. The greater the volume of content (and we have 50 or more posts per day), the greater the chance for errors. Still, everyone in this business aspires in every instance to be right. Or so we thought.”2 The Washington Post's own Andrew Alexander wrote: “Wise wasn't reporting. He was fabricating, which is the greatest sin in journalism.”3
        The Washington Post issued a month long suspension for Wise, which he announced on his Tuesday morning radio show, along with a lengthy apology. I’m paying the price I should for careless, dumb behavior in the multi-platform media world,” said Wise. 4
Severe critics of Wise's error have called for the Washington Post to release him completely. Florio wrote: “a semi-competent lawyer (or me) would have Wise admitting within five minutes or less that his employment should be terminated for cause.” 5 Washington Post's own Andrew Alexander wrote: “The Post's internal rules say explicitly that when using social media, 'we must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists,'” and continues to say “Wise was lucky he wasn't sacked.”6
       Comparisons have been made between Wise's actions and other instances where papers fired writers for flagrant mistruths, such as the Boston Globe firing Barbera Stewart for reporting about a seal hunt that hadn't actually happened due to being canceled because of bad weather, or the Los Angeles Times' firing Eric Slater after errors in an article about university hazing led them to believe he'd never actually visited the university There is a big difference between these cases though: these examples are ostensibly cases of laziness, whereas Wise's carelessness was essentially a lesson that backfired. Unfortunately for Wise, that makes publishing and promoting misinformation as a journalist no less of an error.
        On one hand, Wise had a point to his poorly executed lesson: the reporters that ran with his tweet obviously did no fact checking beyond taking a seven word tweet at face value. There is hardly enough information contained within that tweet to create or add to a story. If I read Wise's tweet and intended to publish something including his information, I would also want more background. Who did he hear it from? What else does he know? How valid is his source? A reporter's real task with processing this information should be gathering additional details, a confirmation of information, additional sources. As writer Milton Kent wrote for Aol Sports: “What Wise was attempting to say, albeit in a ham-handed fashion, was that all of us, including those who gather and disseminate the news, need to seriously consider how we get that information, where it comes from and how much weight we ascribe to that information.”7
        On the other hand, these reporters took Wise's text seriously because they placed faith in him as a fellow journalist. This is where Wise let his fellow journalists and his organization down. Crying wolf in the manner that Wise did only hurt his own reputation and the reputation of the Washington Post. Greg Sandoval wrote for CNET news: “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.”8 This event also brings up the question of whether a journalist can ever step out of character and write something that doesn't live up to a strict code of journalistic ethics of accuracy and objectivity. However, this even transcends the argument over whether or not journalists should be allowed to post their own opinions on Facebook and Twitter, because what we're dealing with is not the difference between fact and opinion (after all, Wise, a journalist, has certainly used his platform to voice opinion in a “journalistic” manner), but rather the difference between fact and fallacy. Kent writes: “The one immutable tenet of journalism is that those who practice it cannot lie. Ever. It's the first thing and the last thing they teach you in journalism school, and Wise trampled over it.”9 Journalists should have an overlying dedication to the spreading of truth.
        Wise's editors made the right decision in suspending him for a month. If Wise is telling the truth about his reasoning behind the false tweet, then he was indeed trying to prove a point instead of lying for lying's sake or because of lazy, incompetent journalism skills. Had this been the case, Wise would have deserved to be fired immediately. Instead, a short term punishment for having low regard for the consequences of an ill-executed social experiment seems just.
        As journalists, we need to be aware of the integrity of the messages we spread, regardless of the social medium we use. In an age where the avenues of communication are constantly broadening, our reliability as a source of truth that the general public can depend on does not waver. Unless the information we spread is overtly stated as being fictitious, making up “facts” is inexcusable. Mike Wise learned the hard way that the only thing at stake is our own reputation. As Wise declared in his apology: “Integrity, being right before being first, is the only thing genuine journalists have left in this world.”10
1Mike Florio, Report: Five Games for Roethlisberger, (August 2010).
2Mike Florio, Mike Wise admits to Big Ben hoax, offers lame explanation, (August 2010).
3Andrew Alexander, Post Columnist Mike Wise Suspended for Fake Twitter Report, (August 2010).
4Mike Wise, cited by Andrew Alexander, Post Columnist Mike Wise Suspended for Fake Twitter Report, (August 2010).
5Mike Florio, Washington Post Suspends Mike Wise for a Month, (August 2010).
6Andrew Alexander, The Toll of Mike Wise's False Tweet on Ben Roethlisberger, (September 2010).
7Milton Kent, Mike Wise's Point Buried by Lousy Delivery, (September 2010).
8Greg Sandoval, WashPo Writer Suspended After Twitter Hoax
10Mike Wise, as cited by Andrew Alexander, Post Columnist Mike Wise Suspended for Fake Twitter Report, (August 2010).


  1. I'm still not sure what i feel about Wise's decision to make a practical joke on Twitter, because it wasn't a really crazy story that could have caused more conflict but that he did provide false info he should have known that he was going to create a problem. I think he learned a lesson and probably other journalists did too so I suppose that won't happen again.

  2. I think I'd let Wise off pretty easy... honestly, what kind of reporter would use Twitter as a serious source? And what kind of reporter would use ONLY Twitter to build a story?