How Twitter Killed a Story Before it Began

The mini-controversy this weekend over Robert Mathis’ ‘plan’ to hold out of training camp served as the perfect illustration for the power of Twitter to alter the face of journalism.

The story of the story that was killed before it ever started began on Friday night.

First, veteran NFL writer Len Pasquarelli (formerly of the Indianapolis News and ESPN) filed a story through a group called “The Sports Exchange” which farms content out to other major news services. I first ran across the story on Yahoo! Canada on Friday evening.  Pasquarelli stated that Robert Mathis was likely to hold out from the Colts training camp once football resumed. Possibly because it was just before the start of a holiday weekend in the United States, the story had not gotten much attention from the mainstream press or from fans.

I immediately reacted in two ways.  First, I posted the story to 18to88.com. The story was obviously unnerving as it could mean a bitter and frustrating contract battle between one of the NFL’s most important players and the Colts. However, I simultaneously tried to confirm the story to Robert Mathis on Twitter. The acts were literally simultaneous as I tweeted Mathis for confirmation before I was finished posting the story to 18to88.com.

Moments after posting the story to 18to88, I received Mathis’s public reply via Twitter denying the veracity of the story, giving a quite noble and well-reasoned answer.

Less than four hours after being originally posted, and before any of the major US outlets had picked up the story it was already refuted publicly by an NFL star relating directly to his fans after being prompted by a question from a non-mainstream journalist.

Amazing.

The story became more interesting on Sunday, however.

After a nearly two day gap, the story finally broke in the United States as Fox Sports released Pasquarelli’s story. Why they waited two days longer than Yahoo! Canada to release the same story (word for word), I don’t know.  However, the story was finally seen by Pro Football Talk’s Gregg Rosenthal who published it on the popular NFL blog.

It was only then that the story began to be noticed by NFL fans on Twitter.  It’s an interesting commentary on the amount of power of PFT verses Foxsports.com. After I saw a fan comment negatively on Mathis, I tweeted PFT to point out that the story had already been killed two days prior.  Rosenthal reacted quickly, not only adding an update to reflect Mathis’s denial, but also appropriately changing the headline on the story to better reflect the truth.

Meanwhile, the original Fox Sports version of the story began to be picked up by many new aggregation services. Fans began to berate Mathis via Twitter, causing him to deny the story (which he had already refuted two days earlier), and angrily challenge unfair attacks on his character. By the end of the day, Mathis had completely stomped out the original story, trying to kill its momentum with a few well timed tweets. Even as he published clear denials, aggregation services continued to run the Pasquarelli piece pronouncing doom for the Colts.

There are many interesting take aways from this story, but allow me to note the following for the record:

1. The mainstream story by a venerable reporter lacked any direct confirmation from the athlete in question in the story. Pasquarelli was obviously misled by a source. It happens, and it’s not necessarily his fault, though one does have to wonder if it was so easy to get a comment from Mathis about the issue why he didn’t manage to get one.

2. The mainstream media released a story that had been publicly refuted two days earlier.

3.  It was online journalists that first found the story (me), sought to confirm the story (me), and then widely disseminated the story with the appropriate corrections (me and Rosenthal).

I’m not trying to toot my own horn with this because the truth is that my role was relatively small. I merely asked Mathis the obvious question first. It wouldn’t have taken long for someone else to do the same.  However, I do believe that because his denial of the story preceded the story cresting in the United States, his initial denials had more force. He never seemed like he was back-peddling because of public pressure, but rather made the initial piece seem flawed. Mathis comes out looking like a champ in front of the fans, essentially espousing all the right reasons for denying the hold out talk well before some talking head could flog him for being selfish.

The end result of all this is that because of the power of Twitter to connect athletes to fans directly and because of the diligence of online media to ask the right questions, we were all spared several days of alarmist hand-wringing and disparagements against Mathis’s character.

News moves faster than ever. Stories now break and die in a matter of hours. Even on a holiday weekend, a two-day old story can be dead before its ever released.

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