Social media and sportswriting: A match made in court?
"Do I need to watch what I tweet?"
In the wake of the federal lawsuit recently filed by an NBA referee against the Associated Press and one of its Minnesota sportswriters, the question has surely been considered, internally or otherwise, by every sporting scribe in the nation.
Ref Bill Spooner sued sportswriter Jon Krawczynski after an allegedly defamatory tweet that Krawczynski made during the Timberwolves' Jan. 24 loss the Houston Rockets at Target Center. Here is what Krawczynski posted:
The lawsuit -- which the NBA advised the ref not to pursue -- seeks $75,000 in damages along with a retraction. It states Spooner's belief that Krawczynski's tweet challenges the official's integrity by suggesting (erroneously, Spooner has countered) that the ref would recompense the Wolves after a call that Wolves' coach Kurt Rambis found disagreeable The suit also makes regular reference to former NBA ref Tim Donaghy, whose gambling scandal threatened the rock the foundations of the sport.
I won't employ this space to go into overt detail of the suit, but if you'd like to further familiarize yourself with the situation, give this piece a read. In addition, to read the suit in its entirety, please click here.
I feel I can state with fact that there isn't a sportswriter in this town who doesn't feel for Krawczynski. This statement won't matter should the suit actually find a courtroom (although the writer's strong reputation might) -- but Krawczynski is a great guy, among the most amiable I've encountered in the sportswriting world, and he's a talented and versatile reporter to boot.
I also feel I can also state with fact that there is nary a sportswriter in the Twin Cities that hasn't tweeted an accusation, observation, or smart-ass zinger toward an official, coach, player, or team brass that's not on par with Krawczynski's now-infamous offering. In myriad cases: I've read far worse.
And I surely count my own tweets among them. Last month, I witnessed a Wolves game so void of entertainment and competitive fire that I made the suggestion on my own account that the contest would have proven more entertaining if the fans used hallucinogenic drugs and just watched the mascots run about.
Will I be sued by the team or the league for defaming the quality of their product? I can't imagine that would happen. However, I trust that with this new precedent set, all sportswriters will gauge the sharpness of their respective swords before placing a 140-character observation in that temping space.
The suit against Krawczynski and the AP makes reference to the writer presenting prolonged, like-minded observations toward refs over the course of the season. Which is to suggest that, yes, Krawczynski was being monitored by the league. Which is also to suggest that he isn't alone in that regard.
Which is to further suggest that social media has actually consequence. Sure, there's no shortage of useful sporting information (i.e., breaking news, stats, links to well-penned items) that comes through the feed -- but that accounts, in my own humble estimation, for about a quarter of what I see on Twitter. The remaining 75 percent is smart-ass quips, of which I, again, count myself a party to.
But here's the rub in Krawczynski's case: the social media medium is still somewhat new, and there is a professional
cloudiness that hangs over the actual merits of tools such as Twitter tool. For example: in recent weeks, I offered a tweet that linked to a fine, local culinary article. Later that day, I was asked by my employers not to do so anymore as the subject matter eschewed the titular purpose of my account: Sports. In this case: City Pages Sports. At first, I was a little steamed that I couldn't simply share a wholly benign and genuinely engaging article with my followers. "It's just Twitter. So what?"
But after further consideration, I mellowed and understood that it's my charge to represent my employer in a specific way.
In Krawczynski's situation, he's representing an organization that's nearly 170 years old, and one that expects its writers to present a product that is generally formulaic, faceless, and that lacks personal passion and prejudice Just the facts, ma'am. That, and a well-written intro along with solid quotes and accurate/interesting stats. They don't want the opining of "Jon Krawczynski;" they want the information from "Jon Smith."
The AP has stood by Krawczynski's court-side claim of what he heard Spooner say. That's important here, and I'll add that based on my own experiences with the guy, I also believe his ears. Yet to dissect the tweet further, that belief handles the first sentence typed by Krawczynski, stating the "fact" of what he heard ("Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he'd 'get it back' after a bad call."). That the writer offered the following two opinion-based sentences of "Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That's NBA officiating folks," is another matter.
Was Krawczynski ever told by his betters that he should distance his own impressions from the facts? If not, he should have been. It's the job of the generals to delegate and communicate to the soldiers. The suit reads "Spooner vs. Krawczynski/AP," but the larger matter is the contrast between "Fact vs. Opinion" is what is an opaque time in the media business where that line becomes oft-blurred. It's incumbent on the employer to concisely convey the expectation of the employee.
Every sportswriter in this town has done exactly what the good Mr. Jon Krawczynski is now being sued for. It's a shame that, before a national audience, he's now the the soloist amidst the chorus.
In 140 characters:
Writers: Know who you work for. Suits: Communicate with clarity the expectations of your employees. Without question: Twitter does matter.
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