Friday, February 13, 2009

Satire? On the Internet?

This story from Alana G (via TrueHoop) is hilarious, but frightening. As most probably know, the NBA is holding its All-Star weekend in Phoenix over the next few days. Reporter Niki D'Andrea of the Phoenix New-Times wrote a cover story about a "tattoo cap" on NBA players that commissioner David Stern was supposedly thinking of implementing, which turned out to be based off a satirical story by author/blogger Con Chapman which was republished on his community blog page at Fox Sports. D'Andrea explains her rationale in a blog post here:

"Though our knee-jerk reaction to the tattoo cap story was that it might be a joke, what it touted seemed possible. Commish Stern had already instituted a business-casual dress code for NBA players going to and from games -- in an attempt to thwart a trend toward hop-hop attire among some players. Also, Suns players we interviewed thought the tat cap story was true and complained about the alleged plan in our article. Calls to NBA headquarters for comment weren't returned before "In the Flesh" went to press. In fact, they haven't been returned to date."

It would be easy to mock D'Andrea, but this could have happened to other people. There are a few specific lessons writers and editors should take from this story, in my mind, in addition to following something along the lines of the Regret the Error accuracy checklist;

1. Double-check your sources and know what exactly they are: D'Andrea writes that they picked up the story from FoxSports.com. However, that site, like many Internet sports sites, combines factual stories and analysis pieces from its paid staff with comments and blogs from community members. Differentiating the two is extremely important, but not everyone does it well. (It can be particularly tough for those who haven't grown up in the Internet age; one of the biggest problems with Buzz Bissinger's Costas Now rant against Will Leitch was how he went after Leitch for stuff posted by Deadspin commenters, rather than what Leitch actually wrote.)


2. Put it in context:
The best way to avoid these kind of sourcing problems is to look at whatever material you find in context. Just looking at the URL of the FoxSports post, you can tell it's a community blog post. That should set off alarm bells about the material's accuracy and at least require some fact-checking with other sources. Moreover, if you just look at Chapman's other GerbilSportsNetwork blog posts, it's pretty obvious he isn't being completely serious. In a different story, he features this "quote" from Bill Laimbeer on flopping;


"'Johnny Most used to call me ‘Stanisflopski’,” Laimbeer recalls bitterly, referring to the Celtics’ broadcaster who covered the team’s fierce Eastern Conference rivalry with the “Bad Boy” Pistons of the ’80’s and 90’s. 'I took my art seriously, and today I’m going to lead you through a dramatic interpretation that will help you get in touch with your inner rage–the scene from ‘Gone With the Wind’ in which Scarlett O’Hara curses the Yankees in the garden of Tara.'"


3. Check if it's reasonable: D'Andrea explains in her blog post that the story seemed plausible, given Stern's previous move to institute a dress code. That's true, but regulating tattoos goes well beyond regulating clothing. Moreover, examine Stern's entire "quote":

“We feel it is important that our players not scare the bejesus out of affluent demographic groups with gangsta-style tattoos,” David Stern said at a press conference here today. “Otherwise we might as well name the next two expansion franchises the ‘Crips’ and the ‘Bloods’,” he added, showing off his “street cred” to the admiration of NBA beat reporters.


There is no way in hell that David Stern, one of the most careful people in the world with his words (listen to any interview with him!) is throwing out "bejesus" and "gangsta" in a real interview, much less making references to naming teams after the Crips and the Bloods. Stern has spent much of his recent tenure trying to get the NBA away from the perceptions of gang life; I doubt you'd ever hear him say anything somewhat similar to this. Plus, no serious news story would incorporate the phrase "showing off his 'street cred'". In fairness, D'Andrea may not have been overly familiar with Stern, as she seems to mostly do arts and music pieces (the top six search results for "D'Andrea" on the paper's website are all on music). That will be discussed further later (see point #5 below), but it's a good idea to do a little background research if you're writing in an unfamiliar area, and a quick Google of Stern's interview transcripts would make it clear that this is a way he would never talk.

4. Does anyone else have it? Very little news is actually exclusive to one site these days, especially when it's on something big and national like the NBA. With a story like this, you can bet that at the least, ESPN, Yahoo! and the Associated Press would have something within an hour or two if there was anything to it. It's worth checking back after you've started your story, too; if other news sites still don't seem to be reporting on it, there's probably a good reason why. In this day and age, this isn't the kind of story that would stay quiet for long if there was any truth to it.

5. Write what you know, or check with people who know:
It's almost unavoidable to have to write outside your subject of expertise these days, which often leads to increased errors. As mentioned above, anyone who regularly covers the NBA would likely have smelled something rotten with this one, especially with Stern's quotes. The New-Times doesn't seem to be a sports-intensive paper, but they do have several guys who write sports posts on one of their blogs, including Steve Jansen, Rick Barrs and Paul Rubin. I don't know if D'Andrea checked with any of them while she was working on this story, but it certainly would have been worthwhile; if she did check in and they didn't see anything weird with it, shame on them. Compartmentalization is a problem with newspapers and magazines in general these days, though; tight deadlines and individual beats mean that there often isn't as much interaction across newsrooms and sections as there should be. In almost any newsroom, you can usually find someone who knows a bit about your topic; it's usually worth it to get whatever background you can from them. It's an efficient use of resources to take advantage of the pool of knowledge in your workplace, and it also helps prevent mistakes.

This certainly isn't the first or the last time that people will pick up on a satirical story as bonafide news; a similar case happened this fall when my Out of Left Field colleague Duane Rollins wrote a tongue-in-cheek press release about dropping the "Thigh" from the "Oil Thigh", Queen's traditional fight song. That one was also pretty clearly satirical, coming shortly after the decision to drop "Golden" from the school's "Golden Gaels" moniker, and it was marked with a "satire" tag, but it still spawned a bunch of angry calls and e-mails to Queen's Athletics and Recreation. Other examples are myriad. The moral of the story; don't believe everything you read. Just because it's on the intertubes doesn't mean that it's accurate; as James Watt famously said(and Terry Prachett repeated in The Truth), "A lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on."

(Funnily enough, it's in dispute whether that quote came from Watt, Mark Twain or both) [Graeme Philipson, The Age].

(Also, that story is still the lead item on the New-Times website (with an attached correction), even though there's really no reason for it to exist now that the premise has been discounted).

2 comments:

  1. Great post, lost of solid advice here!

    Regarding #4... the tattoo piece in question had been published a YEAR ago, so the absence of any other mentions of it should have been a huge red flag.

    Regarding #5... Rick Barrs, one of the sportsy guys you mention, appears to be the EDITOR of the paper, so he surely should have had a look at the story, unless maybe he was on vacation or something. He hasn't returned my email.

    Thanks for the link!

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