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Social media reporting of Colts’ Caldwell decision reveals flaws in breaking news via Twitter

The Indianapolis Colts fired head coach Jim Caldwell Tuesday afternoon. The announcement was made on the Colts’ website, colts.com, after team owner Jim Irsay posted the following tweet: “go to colts.com for upcoming breaking news.”

That was the latest social media wrinkle to this news story. Caldwell’s firing – and how that news was handled heading into Tuesday’s announcement – is a fascinating look into how social media is influencing reporting. An important clarification: this column is not about who was right or wrong on this story (more on that issue later).

On Saturday, Indianapolis sports radio talk show host Jake Query announced on Twitter that Caldwell would be coming back as head coach and an announcement would be made within four days. Query was the one who first reported – correctly – that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning would be out for the year, so his tweet drew lots of attention.

There was no attribution or indication where he got Caldwell information.

The reporting on Caldwell’s situation continued on Monday. The Indianapolis Star, on its sports Twitter account, tweeted that one of its reporters, Mike Chappell “expects” the Colts to retain Caldwell and that an announcement will happen Tuesday or Wednesday.

Chappell, in an online blog called “Ask the expert,” answered a fan’s question about Caldwell’s future: “I expect something to be announced Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest. And I expect Caldwell to return. I know that’s not what you or a lot of Colts fans want to hear. Just a feeling I have.”

I’m not sure you would ever read that paragraph in a newspaper story written by the Colts beat writer, but you can read it on the Star’s website.

The attribution-less discussions spilled into Tuesday morning, when ESPN’s John Clayton went on the “Mike and Mike” national radio show and said: “It seems positive that he is going to be able to stay…The thought is they should be able to keep Jim Caldwell.”

Again, no attribution or source cited.

We know what happened. Caldwell was not retained. Even after Irsay tweeted an announcement was coming, the unattributed “reports” kept coming. Chris Hagan, a sports broadcaster on FOX 59 in Indianapolis, tweeted that he was “hearing” Caldwell was staying.

Even after the news become official, the stories continued to include the social media-driven belief that Caldwell was staying.

On ESPN.com, for example, the story announcing Caldwell’s firing included this paragraph: “Things were so clouded Monday that Caldwell even met with former Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo about possibly becoming the Colts’ new defensive coordinator, and as late as Tuesday morning, the conventional wisdom was that Caldwell would stay.”

And I can only assume that “conventional wisdom” is the latest euphemism for “what people were saying on Twitter.”

One excellent development that all too often is missing in social media “reporting” was the quick admission by Query and Hagan their previous tweets were wrong.

Hagan was emphatic: “I’ll take responsibility for the info I reported. I told you what I had heard from a well-placed Colts source. Obviously things have changed.”

Query was more succinct: “I own it. Source was wrong.”

Even after the Caldwell news was announced, there was an effort to justify and “explain” why so many people incorrectly reported that Caldwell would remain as the head coach. Phil Wilson, an Indianapolis Star reporter, chimed in on Twitter: “Yes, #Colts fans, I’m surprised by today’s news. All indications were Caldwell was staying.”

Wilson then posted a blog explaining, as he described it on Twitter, “Why the Caldwell firing threw us for a loop.” The explanation in his blog: “Every indication from sources inside the local NFL complex suggested Jim Caldwell would stay as Indianapolis Colts head coach. I had been hearing that through the weekend.”

Query posted a blog on the station’s website Tuesday night about all this. The extremely candid and insightful post delved smartly into the current state of social media reporting:

“What is more murky, however, is where media rules apply outside the realm of traditional print and electronic media. Bob [Kravitz, Indianapolis Star columnist] was adamant to me, and to his Twitter audience, that old guard newspaper rules of sourcing, fact finding, and naming sources apply with Twitter and Facebook as they do with newspapers and newscasts.”

“With the explosion of smart phones, blog sites, social media sites and the dot coms, the world has gotten a lot smaller and lot faster. With each new avenue, another old tradition fades away. We live in a minute by minute society. It’s no longer a “film at 11″ world, and the morning newspaper has become little more than a permanent archive to scrapbook the article that you’d read online the day before.

“It’s for this reason that different media members adhere to different principles.”

Query is spot on about the murkiness. Read his entire blog. It’s an excellent assessment of the challenges of reporting in the social media age. And I would argue the Indianapolis Star (Kravitz’ comments not withstanding) – in at least on this story – employed very different standards for what was reported on their online blogs and what was reported in their printed product.

And that may not necessarily be a bad thing.  Social media platforms, including online blogs, have given greater insights into not only the sports world, but the people covering them. If newspapers were more willing to embrace this approach, your home-delivered sports sections would be much more readable and relevant.

I spoke to Query Tuesday night. He raised another interesting point about the role of Twitter in all this. “Twitter is not considered a legitimate news source – but that is the understanding,” he said.

I think he’s got a point. Many in the media use Twitter as an informal instant-messaging tool and many times do not treat it like a news source – but those consuming the information do see it as a viable news source.

Combine that with the fact that the standards are different for what gets reported on Twitter, online news sites and printed newspapers and you get the kind of storm that leaves reporters wondering what threw them for a loop.

And what happened Tuesday with the Caldwell story may be the occasional price we pay for this kind of reporting.

Or maybe not.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Hagan tweeted: “Clearly something changed or there was some type of misdirection. Lots of us got burned in this one.”

On the issue of who was right or wrong, it is very possible that everyone was right – at the time they tweeted and blogged. Things very well might have changed: Caldwell was coming back and then Irsay, the owner, changed his mind at some point on Tuesday.

The problem is this age of one-source stories and seemingly constant dissemination of “news” without attribution, we will never know.

What would help is for more social media reporters to respond with the candor of Query.

Ronnie Ramos is the managing director of digital communications for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter.

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