Reporter in the eye of a Twitter storm

Earlier this month, ESPN basketball reporter Chris Broussard found himself at the center of a Twitter furor over his coverage of free-agency decisions by NBA guards Deron Williams and Eric Gordon.

Many sports fans watching Twitter on July 3 concluded that Broussard, a veteran reporter, didn’t have a very good night.

Shortly after 7 p.m., Deron Williams tweeted: “Made a very tough decision today….” followed by a link to lockerz.com, a social media site for sharing images and video. That link led to a photo of the Nets’ new logo: Williams had decided to stay with the team for its move to Brooklyn.

At 7:15 p.m., Broussard tweeted “source: Deron Williams tells Nets he’s staying in Brooklyn,” following that four minutes later with “just got this text from Deron Williams: ‘staying in Brooklyn.’”

Other NBA writers, meanwhile, were also reporting Williams’ decision to stay, except most were noting that Williams had broken the news himself on Twitter.

Later that night, Gordon decided to leave New Orleans and sign a four-year, $58 million deal with the Phoenix Suns. (The Hornets would eventually match the Suns’ offer.) At 10:20 p.m., Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic posted a story to that effect, passing along a Gordon quote in a prepared statement from agent Rob Pelinka: “After visiting the Suns, the impression the organization made on me was incredible. (Suns Managing Partner) Mr. (Robert) Sarver, (President of Basketball Operations) Lon Babby, (General Manager) Lance Blanks, the front-office staff and Coach (Alvin) Gentry run a first-class organization and I strongly feel they are the right franchise for me. Phoenix is just where my heart is now."

Shortly after that, Broussard published three tweets. In the first, at 10:27 p.m., he noted the agreement, which he attributed to sources. Five minutes later, he tweeted that “Gordon told me his desire is to play in Phoenix, not New Orleans.” And then, at 10:33 p.m., Broussard tweeted “Eric Gordon told me this: ‘I strongly feel (the Suns) are the right franchise for me. Phoenix is just where my heart is now.’ ”

Broussard soon became a Twitter punching bag, mocked for reporting things everybody already knew and claiming them as his own. To those connecting the dots, it looked as if Broussard’s source for the Williams news was Williams himself and the reporter was treating a public tweet like a private message. Then Broussard seemed to have either passed off a prepared release from an agent as a personal communication from a player or lifted it from another reporter.

According to Broussard, what happened was rather different.

Broussard said he had been working on the Williams and Gordon stories up until the night of July 3. That day he had tweeted that Williams was working out at the Nets’ practice facility, and the day before he had tweeted that Williams and the Nets were meeting and that Gordon was having dinner with the Suns and an offer might be forthcoming.

Broussard told The Poynter Review Project that he was busy with TV and radio on the evening of July 3 and was alerted to Williams’ tweet by the ESPN news desk. He said he saw the tweet but couldn’t access the Lockerz image. So he texted a couple of sources, who told him Williams was staying with the Nets, and got confirmation of that in a text exchange with Williams himself.

“I had been texting with him throughout the process,” Broussard said.

As for Gordon, Broussard said he learned shortly after 10 p.m. that Gordon had committed to Phoenix’s offer and got a quote from Pelinka that was attributable to Gordon. He worked up the story and sent it to the news desk, thinking he was the only one with the quote, then tweeted the news. It wasn’t until after that, Broussard said, that he saw The Arizona Republic also had the quote.

“I thought it was an exclusive,” Broussard said.

Why did he attribute the quote directly to Gordon instead of noting it came through his agent? Because, Broussard said, he viewed Pelinka as a source he didn’t want to reveal -– which a full attribution would have done. The Arizona Republic’s Coro told us that Pelinka texted him, adding that “I don’t know for sure, but my impression is that the agent called to tell the news to me and Chris.” Coro couldn’t say who else got the quote, but he added that he knows it didn’t go out in a mass email because other reporters asked him how he got it. (Pelinka didn’t return messages we left at his agency.)

After speaking with Broussard, we find his account plausible. Reporters rushing to get a story out have a soda-straw view of the news, and readers reloading Twitter or jumping from site to site often have a fuller picture of what’s been reported by many news sources.

What’s more, those news sources all flow into a single river of news. The chronological nature of Twitter timelines can make a series of tweets look like cause and effect, when the reality might be that different reporters are working on stories in parallel and tweeting at different times.

That said, a few conclusions:

Broussard sweetened the attribution on the Gordon quote in his favor, and was caught out when the quote turned out not to be exclusive and was attributed more fully by Coro. What Broussard did isn’t terribly uncommon, but a small falsehood is still a falsehood. As for the desire to protect a source, that’s understandable but is neither an excuse nor applicable here -– tweeting “Eric Gordon said this” would have done the job without misleading the reader the way "Eric Gordon told me this” did.

Broussard told us he filed stories to the news desk before tweeting, saying that was ESPN policy. But as we discussed in a post earlier this month (which was published after these events occurred), that doesn’t seem to be the case: Once a piece of news is vetted, it begins rolling out to various ESPN platforms and can be tweeted in advance of an actual, fully written story. If Broussard had proceeded in that fashion, his tweets would have been more timely. Broussard is far from the only reporter uncertain about this point; his experience is yet more proof that ESPN needs to dispel the confusion here.

Broussard and other reporters need to consider that readers consume news very differently than they once did, with many sports fans taking in lots of media reports simultaneously and combining media competitors working in isolation into one undifferentiated feed. It’s not realistic to expect reporters chasing a fast-moving story to inventory their competitors before filing -– their job is to find something out, get it verified, and get it out to readers and viewers. But, after filing, reporters do need to be cognizant of what was said, as well as when and how it was said. And they have to be quicker than ever in knocking down misconceptions and owning up to mistakes. Broussard acknowledged this in our conversation, saying that “I need to start following Twitter more closely so I know as best I can what other writers and players are putting out.”

This story caught fire because it fit with an oft-heard perception among other media members and readers that ESPN routinely steals other organizations’ scoops. It’s an accusation not limited to media rivals, either: In September 2011, former "SportsCenter" anchor Josh Elliott made waves when he told the Blogs With Balls conference that “they just started stealing scoops. … I felt horrible.”

Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, disputed that, telling Poynter Review in an email “I’m not sure why or how Josh came to that conclusion,” and adding that ESPN credits many other news organizations and sources on "SportsCenter," The Bottom Line and elsewhere.

Sometimes, Doria said, others report stories using anonymous sources, and ESPN then learns the same information through its own anonymous sources that it deems trustworthy. In such cases, he said, “We will often report that ESPN has 'confirmed’ a story that was reported earlier. At times, people have viewed this as us taking credit. We see it instead as taking responsibility for reporting; we are telling viewers that we now have sources that we know telling us something and we feel more strongly about its credibility.”

Accusations of scoop stealing are a part of beat writing, and ESPN writers sometimes think they've been done wrong, too. Basic ethics and professional courtesy are reasons enough not to swipe other people’s stories -- but, having said that, many scoops are increasingly meaningless: With the exception of ambitious enterprise work, the life expectancy of an average scoop has withered to minutes or even seconds. Moreover, few readers getting their news through social media notice or care whose tweet arrived five minutes earlier.

And when reporters are working in parallel, sometimes “first” doesn’t mean much more than one person getting called first or typing faster. There’s not a lot to crow about there -– and there will be less and less as players and teams increasingly break their own news, as Williams and Gordon did.

Reporters are hard-wired to compete, and some would object that it’s suicidal not to sweat scoops when some higher-ups keep score this way. We understand, and so we would plead that everybody take a step back and think about what’s most likely to be remembered and valued by readers.

To us, that’s not speed but depth –- explaining what a piece of news means, its historical context, why it happened, what’s now more or less likely to happen, and above all how it changes things. Being first with that kind of news? That really is worth bragging about.