How It Went Down, or: Why Twitter Sucks

Gordon Edes wrote a nice three-part series on the Red Sox' newest slugger over the holidays. Much of it is the usual feature fluff you do when you're assigned these kinds of things — talk to the family, dutifully report the childhood foibles, add some color and a fancy lede — but, as I predicted, it also includes the most in-depth look at the turbulent day in which the trade was confirmed, then reported to have "fallen thru," then given the George Romero treatment.

The most important thing to note: At no point in Edes' paragraphs on the matter, does he say the trade was dead, or that it had fallen through. Those phrases do not appear. (In fact, he explicitly said this shortly after Gonzalez was introduced: "At no point was the deal dead.") I think this is important because for much of the day, discussion of the Red Sox and the way they do business was driven by a completely inaccurate tweet by Jon Heyman, one he has never, to my knowledge, retracted or even addressed.


First, here's the MLB Trade Rumors update thread, in all its messy glory. Not much of substance takes place, but at 1:43 p.m., Heyman tweets: 

Source; gonzalez deal fell thru

That's it. A "source." The report was never confirmed; in fact, it was contradicted 13 minutes later by Ken Rosenthal, who noted the Sox and Padres might complete the deal anyway, and by 2:19 p.m. — exactly 36 minutes after Heyman turned Red Sox Nation upside down — Jon Paul Morosi tweeted:

Source on #Gonzalez and #RedSox: "Not done yet."

In the subsequent hours, Gordon Edes and Peter Abraham, who one would assume have excellent team sources, both said they were unable to confirm that the deal had fallen through, and Gonzalez's agent declined to comment, saying he was still in meetings. Whoever was Heyman's source, he or she does not appear to have actually been involved with the negotiations; the tweet reads more like speculation. If the deadline has come and gone with no agreement, then the deal must have fallen through.

And by 5:17, Heyman was backpedaling from his own reporting:

Qredsox have not given up on a-gon. There's a chance they could still do a deal w/o extension

[Apropos of nothing, I know it's Twitter and you're trying to break news as quickly as possible and all that, but is it too much to ask someone who is paid money to write to at least use correct punctuation and make sure ridiculous typos are removed from their text?]

Anyway, on one level, there is the obvious question: Why was this necessary? Think about this for a second: Jon Heyman uses a free service completely unconnected from the company that employs him to break news that does not link back to his actual work (which is illogically given away by his employers, but that's another discussion). In the meantime, the "news" he breaks can rocket around the world yet be obsolete within minutes, which obviously raises the question of how relevant this "news" was in the first place.

The Twitter medium encourages reporters to write as quickly as possible, report every least whisper as breaking news, and condense potentially nuanced issues into 140 characters. On top of that, there is no method for retraction — Heyman was wrong, or at least his source was, but even had he wanted to say, "Oops. Sorry. The deal hasn't fallen thru," the original tweet is out there. It has been retweeted hundreds of times, aired on WEEI, reposted on the blogs of news aggregators and other reporters alike, with no guarantee that the correction would receive similar play. It's the antithesis of pretty much everything print journalism is supposed to be — nuanced, careful, accurate, objective. Instead, it rewards the sensational, the speculative and the simple. Twitter has a lot of great uses, but, like 24-hour cable news, it does not encourage accurate, responsible journalism. 

On another level, there's the following question: Why didn't Heyman retract his tweet when it became clear 1. no one else was backing it up, 2. other reporters, including the Sox' own beat writers, were actively contradicting him, and 3. he talked to other sources who rejected his initial reporting? 

Theo Epstein and the Sox' ownership are big boys, and they can take care of themselves. But they received a lot of unnecessary flak over a decision that they never made, over a failed negotiation that never happened, over a perceived pattern of actions whose most recent data point never existed. In the end, they are people, and people — even public figures, as these men are — deserve the basic respect and dignity of having professional journalists report accurately about their affairs, even if that reporting is condensed into 140 characters or fewer.

18 comments… add one

  • Excellent post, but the headline should really end “Why Jon Heyman sucks.”
    In this case, Twitter was just the medium abused by Heyman – he could just as easily have posted it on a blog or Facebook or his own employer’s site. The resulting explosion says more about Heyman than Twitter. He couldn’t issue a retraction? What a tool.

    Universalhub December 28, 2010, 10:12 am
  • Hudson December 28, 2010, 10:13 am
  • I think Heyman hasn’t retracted his tweet for one major reason: he probably doesn’t think it was an error. He only tweeted that a “deal fell thru”, but it was never evident what deal he meant: the actual trade or the extension. And he has enough wiggle room to say he never said the actual trade died.
    As for his “source”, I would hope that he won’t regard this person as much of a source if, in fact, they told him the trade had died.
    As to your points about Twitter – I agree wholeheartedly.

    SF December 28, 2010, 10:19 am
  • I really dislike the twitter medium, feel like an old fogey whenever I find myself reading a tweet. That said, this post should be retitled “How it Went Down, or: Why Heyman Sucks”. It’s sport reporting, so it’s of little importance in the grand scheme of things, but Heyman plays fast and loose with journalistic rules. Clearly he’s in a race with other rumor mongers such as Rosenthal, Olney, Gammons, etc. And access is something they’re always fighting over. So I can’t help but think he puts out rumors or news or whatever you want to call this, so that he can curry favor with someone close to the newsmakers. It’s annoying for people interested in, you know, the truth, but I guess he can get away with it and benefit from it.

    Nick-YF December 28, 2010, 10:21 am
  • Oops, I didn’t see any of the previous posts. Sorry for repeating your line, Universal Hub.

    Nick-YF December 28, 2010, 10:23 am
  • I find it interesting that SI doesn’t require any of their reporters to pass any breaking news through their new desks.
    Recall Bill Simmons and his tweet about Randy Moss getting traded to the Vikings. (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/101013&sportCat=nfl )
    He mentions that any breaking news stories needs to be filtered through the ESPN new desk before getting posted. While I understand that not everybody likes Simmons, he does make some points in his article about Twitter and getting scoops or breaking news.
    I also agree with SF on the meaning of the deal falling through. Leading up to that point I had seen stories stating that the Sox and Gonzalez need to sign an extension before the deal going through. Some had said they didn’t feel that Theo or the Sox ownership would want to risk 4 prospects on a chance that he would just enter the FA market at the end of the 2011 season. Turns out that those were wrong, but they were reasonable at the time and made sense to me.

    BillsBurgSF December 28, 2010, 11:49 am
  • > (Twitter is the) antithesis of pretty much everything print journalism is supposed to be — nuanced, careful, accurate, objective.
    In my opinion, the key phrase in that sentence is “supposed to be.”
    > Instead, it rewards the sensational, the speculative and the simple.
    That happens in print as well, and the retractions are just as difficult to find. Also, consider exposure: eight percent of Americans use Twitter. Approximately 80% of Tweets go unread by the people that subscribe to the issuer of the Tweet. That’s a fairly poor impression rate in my opinion. About 40% of Americans use Facebook, and the vetting of the information is little different on Twitter/Facebook/Blogs/ (or going back in evolution)/email/news groups/bulletin boards regarding the meritocracy that takes place in evaluation of the source. How many hoax Facebook rallies or ridiculous email scams have you had to deal with, such as telling some relative that no, we are not directly in line to inherit the fortune of an Nigerian Prince or that there is no virus that will cause her computer to catch fire?
    > Twitter has a lot of great uses, but, like 24-hour cable news, it does not encourage accurate, responsible journalism.
    I agree with this point. But that ship sailed with Compuserve in the 80′s, and Twitter is not the worst offender, just the latest wrapper. I’m far more concerned that the news and opinion being conveyed to people by large news corporations is either deceitful or disingenuous.

    attackgerbil December 28, 2010, 5:31 pm
  • Good points made by everyone. I agree that Twitter as a medium can be used for good or bad, but not all media are created equal; some more easily allow for good journalism while others encourage behavior that more easily lends itself to poor journalism. 24-hour cable news places an incredible emphasis on immediacy and competition. You can still do good journalism in that medium, but obviously it’s harder because you’re trying to fill a full day’s worth of news, and it’s much easier (and more lucrative) to film car chases and screaming heads than run lengthy pieces about important topics.
    Twitter takes the concept of immediacy even further but adds the perplexing notion that whatever can be reported must be done in 140 characters or fewer, which is anathema to what print journalism ideally is about: Providing context and detail to a story that would be glossed over on television. Twitter can still be used to great effect, witness the Iran protests last year. But the essence of the medium is everything journalism should not be. So it’s not surprising that bad journalists like Heyman (and most sportswriters, for that matter) abuse it.
    I disagree slightly with SF. I think he’s right that Heyman would argue he wasn’t wrong; if anything, merely his source was. But regardless of which deal Heyman was describing, neither has actually fallen through, so I consider it inaccurate regardless of whether he was discussing the trade or the extension. And, once again, if the tweet is that unclear, then it’s poor journalism on Heyman’s part regardless.
    I agree wholeheartedly with AG’s statement (implied) that FOX News is far and a way a greater evil to journalism, and for that matter the country, than Jon Heyman and his inaccurate tweets.

    Paul SF December 29, 2010, 11:12 am
  • Also, consider exposure: eight percent of Americans use Twitter. Approximately 80% of Tweets go unread by the people that subscribe to the issuer of the Tweet. That’s a fairly poor impression rate in my opinion. About 40% of Americans use Facebook, and the vetting of the information is little different on Twitter/Facebook/Blogs/ (or going back in evolution)/email/news groups/bulletin boards regarding the meritocracy that takes place in evaluation of the source. How many hoax Facebook rallies or ridiculous email scams have you had to deal with, such as telling some relative that no, we are not directly in line to inherit the fortune of an Nigerian Prince or that there is no virus that will cause her computer to catch fire?
    The main difference between all these and Twitter is that no journalist is using or ever used those media to break news. While news organizations are on Facebook, they use it to drive traffic to the printed stories they’ve already reported, written, edited and placed on their own websites. Likewise, reporters never broke news on a listserv or bulletin board. It was the other way around: Those media provided story ideas that were then reported on in a more traditional manner. Twitter likewise could serve this useful purpose — and it has. But the gravity lent to the medium by news organizations willing to use it to break news completely changes the game; the penetration of the initial tweet may be light compared to putting the same information on Facebook or the organization’s actual website, but the fact that it’s being put on Twitter means the tweet immediately gets picked up by places like MLB Trade Rumors, ESPN and sports radio as news, thus spreading the inaccuracy much further.
    The ultimate problem is that a news organization like Sports Illustrated allows reporters like Heyman to print breaking news based on a single anonymous source, likely without asking him for the source’s name to at least determine whether the veracity is strong enough to run with. This isn’t a Twitter problem, but Twitter provides one more means to avoid dealing with these important journalistic issues.
    The hot stove season would be a lot more boring, but it would also be a lot more accurate, if the sports departments were held to the same standard as the news departments at the same papers when it comes to anonymous sources and breaking news.

    Paul SF December 29, 2010, 11:22 am
  • I disagree slightly with SF. I think he’s right that Heyman would argue he wasn’t wrong; if anything, merely his source was. But regardless of which deal Heyman was describing, neither has actually fallen through, so I consider it inaccurate regardless of whether he was discussing the trade or the extension. And, once again, if the tweet is that unclear, then it’s poor journalism on Heyman’s part regardless.
    We don’t disagree at all, actually. I think the same exact thing.

    SF December 29, 2010, 12:31 pm
  • > This isn’t a Twitter problem, but Twitter provides one more means to avoid dealing with these important journalistic issues.
    Do you mean that these are issues with the employer, who need to enforce a proper code of conduct regarding how information is released when one is employed as a journalist? What does this mean to the concept of the blogger, or for the concept of the capture of information as a whole?
    This conversation and Paul’s point regarding maintaining integrity is fascinating to me. For clarity, Paul’s interpretation of my implication of corporate behemoths was spot-on.

    attackgerbil December 29, 2010, 3:29 pm
  • Re: Perplexing 140 limit: Tweets are built to fit into a single SMS. Not short enough to be as graceful as haiku, but not long enough to br
    < 140 character limit reached >

    attackgerbil December 29, 2010, 3:37 pm
  • “…I agree wholeheartedly with AG’s statement (implied) that FOX News is far and a way a greater evil to journalism, and for that matter the country, than Jon Heyman and his inaccurate tweets…”
    then you haven’t seen msnbc my friend…olberman and maddow are radical freaks…

    dc December 29, 2010, 10:39 pm
  • olberman and maddow are radical freaks…
    No argument from me about Olberman, who has gone way out there, but that’s one host compared to the three-headed beast of Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity. And, best I can tell, MSNBC still keeps it’s news objective, which is much more than can be said for Fox (note the recent survey that shows Fox viewers are significantly less likely to believe a series of factually true statements about the economy and current events.)

    Paul SF December 30, 2010, 2:37 am
  • from what i can tell, both networks are slanted to reflect the political bias of the influence peddlers they pander to, but i can’t really argue with you about which one is moreso…that’s really just a matter of opinion, and tough to actually measure…i try not to watch either one of them…there’s really no such thing as “just news” anymore…

    dc December 30, 2010, 8:53 am
  • > i try not to watch either one of them
    That’s my method too.

    attackgerbil December 30, 2010, 10:56 am
  • Agreed. I avoid all cable news, and which one is worse is less important than the “watch whatever agrees with my preconceived worldview” mentality they foster.

    Paul SF December 30, 2010, 11:50 am
  • Ugh, I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole here but there is a fundamental difference between MSNBC, which employs liberal personalities on opinion shows (not news broadcasts) and Fox, which organizationally demands that the “news” be reported with an ideological slant.
    Olbermann and Maddow are (inarguably) liberal personalities who have their own shows on an otherwise non-partisan news network. As does Joe Scarborough. MSNBC is simply not comparable to Fox News (whose name itself is an affront to journalism as a practice). They are two different types of entities.

    SF December 30, 2010, 1:29 pm

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