Social media and sportswriting: A match made in court?

Categories: Sports
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A sportswriter's friend or foe?
"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:

Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he'd "get it back" after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That's NBA officiating folks.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

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

Quill pen.jpg
Image courtesy of Anon.
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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10 comments
Judd
Judd

Sticking with the AP, just thought I'd add this message that the AP recently sent out to their client regarding their new "hometown" style of baseball coverage:

"Starting with the new season, AP Sports will add another dimension to our baseball coverage. We will now provide optional-style tops featuring the losing team in addition to the regular optional top that focuses on the winning team.

Called hometown leads, the stories will move after the breaking and optional leads have appeared on the wire. The hometown lead will pick up into the material in the breaking lead and will run about 12-13 inches. It will carry a featurized lead and quotes from at least one player and/or the manager. We hope to have it on the wire within 60-75 minutes after the game ends.

To recap: _ NewsNow game lead._ Writethru with game details._ Optional lead._ Hometown lead (losing team optional), picking up into main game story. Slugs for the main stories and optional leads will be the same: BC-BBN—Phillies-Mets.

The hometown lead will be slugged with that team’s name only: BC-BBN—Mets. In other words, this means the Mets lost the game and the regular optional is focused on the Phillies. AP Sports decided to begin providing this service, after discussions with many U.S.-based sports editors, as a way to meet a need for coverage tailored to their local teams."

Malone
Malone

I think that people should be held accountable for their printed words. If the accusation is true, then he should prevail in the court of law. If the accusation is not true, then the writer should not have written it and should be held accountable for libel. Free speech is a powerful freedom - and with that comes responsibility.

Bryan
Bryan

Very interesting topic - I'm afraid there will be a plethora of law suits like this in the future. In our society, everybody wants to sue everybody. And the internet will just add more fuel to the "Oh poor me - I've been defamed!" fire. I'm sure there is a lie somewhere that shouldn't be crossed - but for the most part - it's ridiculous.

Chuck Norris
Chuck Norris

This is a really interesting article for several reasons. First, as a journalist, does your employer have the right to control what you say or don't say in a public forum that they don't publish? Do they own your name? Because that's what we're talking about here, rights and ownership. Second, can you be sued for slander or libel if the words are true? But the most important point I think is that long ago the journalistic lines for sportswriters were smudged then blurred then re-drawn. The only objectivity left in the sports page is in the Box Scores. From Dan Patrick to Jim Rome to Sid Hartman to Rick Riley. Every 'sportswriter' wears a larger hat that should say, 'commentator'. Sports is one great big Op Ed endeavor and has been for a long time. Look at the proof above. No offense to the author, but the article is laced with opinion as all sports articles are. I believe the article above is a very good article, but objective it is not. This brings us to the point, why is the above-mentioned AP writer being demonized for not being objective in a world where objectivity is much like the Latin language: dead.

myles
myles

As someone who also writes a lot, this clearly has a chilling effect on commentaries. Yes, the internet has a lot of irresponsible writing, but the ocurts would be absolutely jammed with cases (mostly frivolous) if everyone sued on each claimed indescretion.

The worst part is on these suits: if you lose, you lose, and if you win, you lose, because of the large cost of defense.

Hopefully the court will quickly dismiss this suit with a VERY strong rebuke to Spooner!

Hank5
Hank5

This is just bull. Guy should have listended to the league and just let it go. Yeah Twitter does now matter like you say, but let's also face it that a tweet carries no stayng power or isnt supposed to. Put your 140 in and let it go.

Judd
Judd

So, do you think the AP is standing beside the writer for reasons other than pure belief?

Judd
Judd

Do you mean "lie" or "line" in your final sentence, good sir? And if it's the latter, I think you brig up a fine point about what exactly that line may be. When it comes to Twitter, the line for me comes with amateur athletes espusing about their programs. If I were a college coach, at any level and for any sport, I'd shut that baby down upon one's admission to the school and team.

Judd
Judd

Many thanks for this very detailed reaction/reply. Yes, this is wrought with opinion, but in my instance I'm both afforded and charged with the job of opining. I've been told and instructed as much. But you're right: it's becoming more and more difficult to define objectivity/subjectivity. In my experience, it seems the reader is ever-attracted to the latter as we move on in the 00's. But of course, discerning which voices are worth listening to is another matter . . .

Judd
Judd

I agree with that last sentence; a victory would set a freaky precedent for future suits of the ilk.

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