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Digging Up a Missing Link

Here’s your disappointing lead: Brett Favre is not going to be on “Dancing With the Stars.” The more interesting story is how we wound up thinking otherwise.

Such stories seem to bubble up out of nowhere, morphing and changing as they’re passed around, and either petering out or gaining velocity until they attract widespread attention. There’s nothing new about this, of course – it’s been true since we formed social groups big enough for a tiny bit of fact or fiction to ricochet back and forth among people who weren’t part of the initial conversation. At some fundamental level, we’re wired for this. And as a result, we’re quick to accept the mysterious churning of the rumor mill as just part of life, a mysterious force that generates stories that can’t ever be traced back to the original.

But the web has changed this ancient game somewhat. Increasingly, you can actually see the rumor mill’s moving parts, and understand how something going in came out looking very different.

The veteran sportswriter Dan Shanoff recently founded Quickish, which publishes rapid-fire, near-real-time sports-news tips and recommendations. (Disclosure: Shanoff and I are friends.) When the Dancing Favre rumor crossed his monitor, he was curious where it came from. But instead of passing it along to Quickish’s audience he started digging, tracing the story’s chain of custody back through time, link by link.

Shanoff’s detective work makes for a good read on its own; to boil it down, the Favre rumor reached him through a story on ProFootballTalk, which ultimately led four links deeper: to USA Today, then KCCI Des Moines, then Bleacher Report and finally to AOL’s PopEater, where the story originated in a conversation at a Super Bowl party between columnist Rob Shuter and retired quarterback Kurt Warner. Basically, it took four days for this column item to become this flying rumor.

There was nothing malicious about how the Dancing Favre rumor grew and spread. After Warner suggested Favre might be a good “Dancing” contestant, PopEater’s Shuter – who already had an amusing item and could have quit there – called a show insider, who said there was no way “Dancing” would be interested. Nor was the oft-derided Bleacher Report the problem: Its columnist presented Shuter’s item accurately. The breakdown came with KCCI, which incorrectly said Bleacher Report was reporting rumors about Favre joining the show, without offering a link. That distorted report then got picked up by USA Today, and in turn by ProFootballTalk, where Shanoff saw it – and broke the chain.

It seems like the classic children’s game of Telephone – but when the game becomes Internet, there’s a twist. In Telephone, determining where a message got twisted or misrepresented quickly goes from difficult to impossible. But in Internet, you can often compare messages and find where and how something went wrong. And in this case, the finger winds up pointed at the KCCI report.

So how do you stop from getting caught up in a game of Internet?

1. Beware the story that’s “too good to check.” That old saw of journalism is a bit of black humor for those of us in the business, but readers are often less amused. And on the web, they can check if you don’t – and then ask why you didn’t. The idea of Brett Favre on “Dancing With the Stars” is amusing, and it would be far from the strangest tale involving Favre in recent history. But that doesn’t make it true.

2. If your mother posts a link saying she loves you, click through and check it out. Oldest reporting advice in the book, given a technological twist. Hyperlinks remind us of academic citations, suggesting they possess a certain authority. But they may not have earned that authority. Click through and make sure what a link is telling you is accurate.

3. The lack of a link is a red flag. If a piece of information comes from original reporting, fine – if the reporting seems credible, of course. But if it’s sourced from elsewhere, where’s the link? As I’ve written before, linking is a web commandment for good reasons. It ensures credit has been given and other people’s information or opinions have been represented accurately. The lack of a link doesn’t make a secondhand report wrong or unfair, but it should raise an eyebrow.

4. Beware the laundered rumor. Many a rumor proceeds “up the chain,” taking on new life when a news organization respected for its journalistic standards cites it. But the rumor hasn’t become more credible – it’s just changed hands. Don’t misconstrue this as a shot at web writers: Note that in this case PopEater did its homework and Bleacher Report reported things accurately – and ProFootballTalk later revised its report to debunk the rumor.

5. Maybe Kurt Warner has a second career waiting for him as a reality-TV producer. OK, this one won’t do a newsroom any good. But hey, Warner’s offhand remark sure got the web buzzing about the possibilities, right?

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.
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