Social Media’s Effects on Sports Journalism

Several NFL players’ tweets about Bears quarterback Jay Cutler highlighted the changes that social media has created in the relationships between athletes, fans, and the media.

Cutler became the object of scorn throughout the city of Chicago after leaving the NFC Championship game on Sunday with what was later diagnosed as a Grade II MCL sprain. Current and former NFL players weighed in with their opinions on Cutler not playing in the second half of the 21-14 loss to the Packers. Here’s what some of them had to say.

Darnell Dockett: “If I’m on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT.”

Deion Sanders: “Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart. Truth”

Derrick Brooks: “HEY there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart”

Maurice Jones-Drew: “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee… I played the whole season on one…”

Asante Samuel: “If he was on my team I’d be looking at him sideways.”

This public backlash against Cutler was surprising, because it was completely unprompted by any reporters’ questions. This is where the social media landscape is meeting and changing the sports journalism industry. Reporters are no longer the only link between fans and the players. Additionally, members of the media are now more accessible to fans. In order to discuss how this affects the roles of players, fans, and journalists, I emailed some questions to ESPN’s AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky, who maintains active participation on both Twitter and Facebook.

My questions are in regular font, and Kuharsky’s answers are in italics:

Recently on Twitter, Chad Ochocinco has been sending messages to ProFootballTalk saying to stay out of the Bengals’ business, threatening to “whoop (Florio’s) ass”. Have you ever had an experience like that with a player either in person or online?

I had a couple semi-heated exchanges with players and an executive when I was a beat reporter. In that job, you’re there every day and guys know it. If you write something they find objectionable, they know you will be there to answer for it, to stand there and be yelled at if they want to put on a show and vent, to argue it out or whatever. Ten years ago they didn’t hold grudges the way they do now. Back then a guy would ultimately let it go or get past it, especially if he played for a coach and worked for a team with a PR coach that was prone to do the same. But there are more and more babies in the league who are not accountable and can’t take the tiniest bit of criticism.

How has social media changed your interaction with fans?

As a newspaper guy, I always returned my messages and emails but I wasn’t necessarily expected to. At ESPN.com, part of my job is to be accessible. So I spend a good deal of my time monitoring comments on my blog posts for reaction and feedback, participating in Facebook conversations, talking on Twitter and answering comments in my mailbag. The best people I communicate with in those forums give me ideas to pursue or expand on.

How do you decide which tweets/comments to respond to?

In some forums I try to touch on all or most: my mailbag, Facebook, Twitter. In my weekly chat there are more questions than I can answer and I can pick the ones I want to hit on. I want to go to the smartest ones, and by doing so I hope I encourage more like that and show the people asking the ridiculous ones they won’t be called on.

With Twitter making it possible for every individual with an opinion to share it with you, does it make it more tiresome when people make baseless statements/suggestions to you?

Yes. It’s just part of the job. But I constantly get ridiculous questions about one team trading its garbage for someone else’s All-Pro or creating conspiracies or repeating stuff that’s been covered multiple times. Some people tweet me stuff I’ve reported, as if it’s news to me. Just today someone on Facebook asked if I’d heard anything on the Titans defensive coordinator vacancy. If I had, I’d have written about it in the blog, I wouldn’t be saving it until he wrote me a tweet with a question. The repetition can wear on you. My “regulars” make fun of those topics that can set me off, knowing how I may react.

In the case of Jay Cutler getting pretty much crucified by fellow NFL players, do you feel like people are taking too much stock in players’ unfiltered opinions?

Not at all. I think the players who offered the criticism exposed themselves. What credibility do they have when they complain about being too easily criticized when they so easily criticized Cutler without knowing the full story? I think it was a watershed moment for social media and pro sports. Guys unedited/unfiltered by coaches or PR staffs, that’s what I want, that’s what everyone in my business wants. But out of traditional boundaries, look at how many guys jumped to conclusions and were not very level-headed or measured. I was embarrassed for Maurice Jones-Drew, who made it worse and worse as he tried to backpedal out of it.

Does Twitter make it easier for players’ thoughts to get taken out of context?

Not at all. How can I take a 140-character tweet directly from them out of context? That IS the context. It’s a tweet. You can tweet something and then claim it was taken out of context. That’s ridiculous.

In today’s instant-news landscape, what do you do when a potential story breaks to quickly make sure you have your facts straight, without missing out on the story because you took too long?

I’m not really responsible for news in my current position. I’m responsible for reacting to news that pertains to the AFC South and being quick with giving you solid context for what news developments mean. I’m not retweeting news or spinning off news with a blog entry that I don’t know comes from a reliable source, someone with a solid track record of reporting accurately, someone who I know is connected. If it’s from someone who doesn’t fit that, then I’ll look to confirm it or wait until someone reputable does. It’s a hard fact to come to terms with as someone who loves the news business and once made his living racing to be accurate and first – but most people don’t care where the info comes from anymore, they just want the info. If I have news, I take it to ESPN’s newsdesk. Usually they ask me to write it as a news story, or if they are working on it, they tell me when I am clear to tweet about it.

How has social media changed your interaction with athletes?

Well I follow them, but most of them don’t follow me back. When I write something that includes them, I try to tweet them the link. Sometimes you can get a guy’s attention and get an answer or a thought, which means you don’t have to burn an email or text or phone call. Mostly I think it helps them see what is written about them and see the conversation about it.

What differences have you found between your interaction with fans via Facebook versus Twitter?

Similar. I think Facebook is a little better in that people are clearly identified, you aren’t dealing in handles and so people are less likely to call you names or rip you when their actual name is attached. There is a bit more of that on Twitter, but the comments connected to posts are still the Wild West in terms of people who want to hide and criticize. Mailbag too.

If you had to estimate a ratio of your Twitter mentions you receive, how would you divide it between random mentions, responses from people you know, real conversation with fans, and hate tweets?

Don’t really understand what you mean by a random mention. I can’t give you percentages. It’s people retweeting or reacting to something I’ve tweeted or written (each of my posts generates a tweet with the link), it’s people asking questions or being conversational, it’s people pointing me to something they think I should see or it’s people ripping me. I’d say the ripping is only about 10 percent on Twitter.

CNN’s Jeff Pearlman did a story where he followed up with people who sent him hate tweets, and he found them much less aggressive in person. Why do you think people tend to be so aggressive online, especially towards even the most minor public figures?

I read that when it came out and virtually every journalist has the same experiences to share. Respond to the nastiest email/tweet/comment and the person often comes back much softer because all of a sudden you are human. I often include someone basing me in a mailbag entry I write, sort of to shame them and the like, but also because so many others then say, ‘Wow, you really deal with some odd people who would write that, don’t let it bother you, I enjoy reading your work.’ And I selfishly find that reassuring.

 

What does this say about the way society as a whole has changed?

I don’t think there is any dramatic change happening here. I think it’s happened gradually and social media has just given it all an avenue to be much more visible. People are quick to judge. They don’t necessarily filter themselves or care much about context.

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About Hank Koebler, IV

Hank Koebler, IV is a convergence journalism major who plans on pursuing a career in sportswriting. He has covered high school football in the Houston area for Houston Community Newspapers, and has been writing for Xtrapointfootball.com since April of 2010.
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