Inside Media: On Breaking News, Sourcing, Credit & Scoops in SportsMarch 29, 2012
Breaking news: People in sports media have become so overly obsessed with breaking news that who breaks a story has become nearly as important in media circles as the actual story being broken.
It wasn't long ago when breaking a story meant a reporter beat the competition by an entire day. If a reporter had an exclusive in the newspaper, it was a full day's news cycle before anyone else could even comment on the news, let alone take credit for breaking it.
Obviously, round-the-clock sports television and the internet have shortened the news cycle immensely. With our ability to instantly comment and react to breaking news, the credit for breaking a story often gets lost in the horde of media pundits trying to one-up the competition with analysis.
ESPN has five 24-hour television stations and a 24-hour radio syndicate for a reason. Breaking news always leads to instant reaction. That instant reaction is what consumes sports fans. If a local newspaper breaks a story about a hometown player or coach—take the Penn State scandal for example—an outlet with ESPN's vast army of reporters and pundits can take over the story and own it within a matter of hours.
Who cares which outlet broke a story when a company can send a dozen reporters to dig for the next level of news and employ another dozen analysts to discuss what the first dozen finds?
In all the "confirmed by" nonsense—a practice often used by the Worldwide Leader to verify a story before reporting it, as much as anything to avoid the need to credit the competitor who originally broke the news—there are some times when the whole "breaking news" thing is a little hard to properly credit.
Simply put, Twitter has ruined the pastime of patting a reporter on the back for breaking news. If you want to blame anything for how irrationally consumed media insiders have become about who broke a story, that blame goes to Twitter.
Awful Announcing recently chronicled the flap between ESPN's Buster Olney and Yes Network reporter Jack Curry, both of whom reported that Andy Pettitte was making a comeback with the New York Yankees.
Curry tweeted news that Pettitte was returning to the Yankees at 12:30 p.m., followed by a tweet from Olney at 12:36 p.m. When Curry was alerted to the fact Olney didn't credit him for breaking the story, he went on a bit of a Twitter rampage. Olney rightly defended himself.
It was six minutes. We are taking sides in a media spat over six minutes.
What if Olney was on the phone with someone at the same time as Curry, but his source was a little chattier? What if Olney made a second call in those six minutes to verify the details of the deal? What if Olney had to write his story for ESPN.com first, then tweet it, but Curry was able to tweet his news as soon as he heard it?
What if Olney couldn't get a signal or his phone battery was dying and his tweet took a little longer to send out? In any scenario, there is a fair case to be made that Olney could have learned the news before Curry, but because his tweet came six minutes later, Olney had people attacking him for stealing the story.
A site like Awful Announcing usually has the good sense to debunk this kind of nonsense, but sadly the author of that post went the other way, stating, "[s]o essentially, Olney is claiming credit for a story that was already broken because he was working on it too. I don't think it works that way."
It does work that way, especially when we are talking about six damn minutes. Not six days. Not even six hours. Six minutes.
It sends the complete wrong message to the bloodthirsty credit hounds. If Olney, or any reporter, uses his or her own sources to report a story, they do not need to credit someone if the story was also reported elsewhere, even if the competing post came a few minutes sooner.
Maybe I'm focusing too much on one particular scenario, so let's use a hypothetical example. Let's say I've been told, off-the-record, that one of the big ESPN personalities rumored to be leaving Bristol in the next few weeks is being targeted by one of the major networks as a cornerstone of its new 24-hour sports channel.
What if my source asked me to hold on to that news until the time is right?
Now, what if the day my source tells me a deal is done, I'm working on another story or on the phone getting more details. What if I miss the original call because I was in the bathroom for six minutes and someone else breaks the story before me, using a completely different source?
Do I have to credit the outlet that broke the news first?
I was beat, yes, but I still got the story on my own. It is possible for two reporters to have the same story on the same day. Who got it first shouldn't really matter as long as the information is right.
On Wednesday, Brooks Melchoir of Sports by Brooks went off on a bit of a Twitter rant about sourcing, claiming his website constantly breaks news but isn't credited because, "we don't rent office space in big shiny building."
He isn't wrong about breaking news. Brooks has sources everywhere, and if he thinks he isn't being properly credited, well, maybe he's not.
But Brooks asserts that because he isn't part of the media elite—despite his website's affiliation as a top Yardbarker property, part of the huge online community owned Fox Sports—reporters take stories he has broken and ostensibly "re-break" them without crediting sites like his.
Brooks specifically mentioned the news of Dana Jacobson's departure from ESPN this week, calling out Michael Hiestand of USA Today:
@matthewkelley Exhibit A: Chk USA Today's reportage of Dana Jacobson departure from ESPN. SbB nor @ESPNBook nor @thebiglead credited. Zero!
If three outlets had news of Jacobson leaving ESPN, isn't it plausible that a fourth—namely one of the top sports media reporters in the entire country—would also have the information? Just because Hiestand didn't tweet the news first or post his article before The Big Lead or Brooks did, that doesn't mean Hiestand didn't do his own legwork on this story.
Should reporters have to credit other sources for simply posting news before they do?
If Richard Deitsch of SI.com is holding something for his weekly media column and that news gets tweeted before his story posts, does he have to go back in and credit the tweeter?
If John Ourand or his colleagues at SportsBusiness Journal have a story queued in their closing bell that goes out around 4:00 p.m., do they have to update a story to credit another site that happened to post a similar report at 3:30 p.m.?
Outlets often have their own sources and report their own news without knowing what other outlets are working on. Too many of us care too much about this.
In all these examples, there are two more angles that haven't been addressed. First, should we even need to worry about crediting a reporter for breaking a story when that reporter works for an outlet that is owned by the team he covers?
In no way am I questioning Curry's work ethic, but it stands to reason the guy working for the Yankees TV network should be the one to break news of the Yankees signing a player. Maybe we should be ripping him whenever he doesn't get the scoop instead of crediting him when he does.
This isn't just for teams, either. Ken Rosenthal was given credit for breaking the news of the expanded MLB Wild Card this season. The guy works for the MLB Network!
Rosenthal is a great reporter, but why were media insiders so quick to give him credit for breaking the news his employer was sending out in a press release a few minutes later?
This question leads right into the second issue about breaking news: Do we really need to give people credit for breaking news the source is putting out anyway?
Major League Baseball sent out a press release about the expanded playoffs. They want us to cover the news. The Yankees signing Andy Pettitte was in MLB's transactions on March 16th, the same day Curry and Olney squabbled over who deserved credit for breaking the news.
Our industry is built on news reporting. Without dedicated investigators, the rest of us probably wouldn't have jobs.
It's just that we get so caught up in who breaks the news that when two people break the same story within the same day—or same ten minute span—we fight over who deserves the credit for posting it first.
Certainly, if Hiestand saw the report about Jacobson leaving ESPN at Sports by Brooks or The Big Lead before doing his own legwork to confirm the story, he should have credited the original source in his piece. But if he found that information independently with his own reporting, he shouldn't have to credit an outlet that also had the story just because they hit the publish or tweet button first.
As someone who relies on facts procured by others to create most of my work, I have a few simple rules I try to follow.
First, always credit sources that are directly referenced in the story. If I mention an article, I'll be darn sure to link to it. Too many websites quote or reference a writer and don't link to the original work or the writer's Twitter page. Yahoo, I'm looking in your general direction.
Yes, by saying a person's name you are technically giving credit, but by not linking to the original source material, you are taking away a potential pageview. We all know pageviews are worth their weight in internet gold.
Second, it is important to credit the source that alerted you to the information. If the original report was in Wall Street Journal but you saw the story on Yahoo's Big League Stew, make sure to credit BLS with the tip.
Last, and most important to the topic, if a team supplies a press release for reporters to reference, it's no longer necessary to credit the original reporter who was first on the story unless the breaking news created the need for said press release.
If a free agent signs with a team, I'm sorry to those reporters who bust their humps to break the news, but it really doesn't matter who "broke" the news if six of you reported the story just before the team sent out a release.
True investigative journalists—those who break stories people don't necessarily want to get out—are the real heroes in our field. Credit them early and often. Just don't obsess over credit when another hard working reporter manages to get the same story.
That's a six-second argument we all want back.