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Mike Wise’s biggest mistake: Not grasping the new world of online journalism

This will probably look like old news. Or that I’m piling on a well-dissected, long-resolved issue. But I want to devote one more column to suspended Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise, who was given his involuntary month-long vacation by the newspaper last week after making up news about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in an unfortunate attempt to spoof the herd mentality of some sports media.

My goal isn’t to take an easy potshot – though I’m not promising that won’t happen, too – but to explore one side of this that hasn’t been talked about much.

I think Wise’s misstep came about, in part, because of a fundamental misunderstanding of how online journalism platforms work these days, made worse by a talk radio-tinged impulse for showy dramatics.

Wise tweeted way back on August 30 that Roethlisberger would see his six-game suspension for bad personal conduct reduced to five games (in one of those ironies that can only happen in sports, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell actually cut it to four games a few days later). Then, the sports writer made his tweets more outlandish, admitting later on his radio show that the whole thing was a “horrendous mistake” of a hoax repeated across the Internet before it was halted.

But his initial idea — showing how some media will echo any rumor without doing their own reporting – displayed a surprising lack of sophistication about how the online journalism world works and how it differs from traditional platforms.

Here’s a few ideas I think he missed:


* On the Internet, news is reported as it develops. This is a tough concept to accept for old-school journalists who aren’t used to publishing until they nail down most areas of a story. And it’s something that I, as a frequent blogger on breaking news and evolving news, continually struggle to master.

But in the online world, speed and immediacy are important. Which means you are often reporting what you know to the public, as you’re doing more research to understand the story better.

In an environment like this, it makes sense to pass along news that a respected journalism source is offering news no one else has heard. Later, if that news turns out to be wrong on purpose, you report that, too. The key is to report what you know, so the audience sees the story evolve as you do.

In this environment, criticizing bloggers for passing along Wise’s story is like criticizing a police reporter for noticing a bunch of cop cars surrounding a bank.


* On the Internet, who posts news can be important as the news itself. Just like the moves of major banks and investors matter to business reporters, those who cover the sports world’s information economy will find what the biggest players are doing in that sphere to be newsworthy, too.

So an unknown blogger claiming to know when Roethlisberger’s suspension will end is vastly different than a writer for one of the largest newspapers in America making the same claim. Regardless of whether the story is true or not, when the Washington Post wades into an issue like this one, sports media outlets will pay attention.


* On the Internet, every outlet develops – or borrows – its own credibility. This connects back to the earlier point. Because online platforms vary so widely, savvy consumers judge outlets by their track record and reputation – something Wise traded on by using a Twitter feed connected to his Washington Post work to spread his hoax.

Because consumers trusted the brand of the Washington Post, they trusted his reporting. So issuing a false statement there implies that his own employer’s reporting shouldn’t be trusted while thumbing his nose at the allegiance consumers extended to his brand because of his association with the newspaper.

Though it makes for bad journalism practice, Wise’s bosses at the Post would likely prefer to have the kind of credibility that prompts blogs and websites worldwide to repeat their reporting as if it were established fact. That’s a level of influence and power which can convert quite directly to advertising dollars and more scoops.

Assuming it doesn’t get twisted by an employee who doesn’t quite get how journalism brands and news consumption works online.

The big lesson from Wise’s trouble may be a simple statement, “Journalists don’t make stuff up.”

But there are a few smaller lessons embedded here, summed up by the great quote delivered to Peter Parker right before he became the legendary comic book hero Spider-Man: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Especially in a 24/7 online media culture.

‘Nuff said.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media. 
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