If you went to ESPN.com a few days ago and looked at the top links shared on Facebook, one story stood out.
I’m talking about the third link entitled, “Robert Griffin III commits gaffe on Twitter.”
Sounds intriguing, right? RGIII has to be one of the most compelling, likeable and versatile athletes in the world. He also happens to be extremely bright and charismatic.
However, he’s a Twitter rookie. Add those three ingredients together, and you have a pretty good story, right? He must have made some type of unforgettable error that was unbelievably embarrassing, with long-term implications.
If you were to click the link (which had been recommended by 572 people at the time I saw it), you will see nothing more than a short paragraph and a series of screen shots. And here’s the story: Last month, Griffin (through his Twitter handle, @RGIII) noted meeting U.S. women’s soccer standout Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13) at a recent sports gala. The twist? The player in question wasn’t the 22-year old forward; it was actually Tobin Heath, a 23-year old midfielder on the team.
Morgan’s response? “I think u met @TobinHeath today but hopefully I’ll see u around. Good luck in the draft!”
And there you go. Welcome to reporting in the 21st century, ladies and gentleman.
Let’s be clear: I’ve seen far less provocative headlines, and stories that have been mashed together with more mindless content. Regardless, the piece makes a point: What some “sports journalists” now often classify as “breaking news” in this era is, well, news to no one.
It’s tough to discern where to place the blame in this kind of case. Is it on the editor who allowed the story to run for “The Worldwide Leader in Sports?” Or is the responsible party the copy editor who tagged a headline clearly overstating the significance of the briefly detailed actions? Or do we heap culpability on the author — after all, it’s her byline, right?
We could put the onus on any of those three, or maybe we pin it on another scapegoat: the age of Internet journalism and search engine optimization.
Because while the newsroom was undermining the integrity and quality of their work, it was simply answering to another master that most of us are familiar with: the dollar.
The concept is pretty simple. The more stories you produce, the more widespread your content. The more widespread your content is, the more potential for views and — God willing — the prospect of going viral through social media. Throw in two big names like RGIII (who was a hot sports topic for weeks before the NFL Draft) and Alex Morgan (a national heartthrob after 2010’s Women’s World Cup) and you have an enviable combination.
Big-time athletes and social media equates to a quick hitter that’s sure to catch the eyes of more than a few sports fans.
In some ways, it’s a shame. In the age of print journalism, I could never imagine such a story surviving a news cycle. The news in question would be deemed irrelevant, incomplete or simply of interest to no one. But with Google seemingly guiding our every whim while ESPN clutches to a firm grasp around our collective sports psyche, the story got the green light and somehow made it to my desktop.
Of course, the Internet often doesn’t have the same detrimental effect on all media or even sports media specifically. It can be a great tool for connecting athletes, creating a wide range of content and opening up the press to a wide range of creators. Fan-produced blogs have been a great addition to the sports media landscape, as have social media. The spectrum of outlets give fans intensely detailed coverage of any team — professional, college, even amateur — they have an affinity for.
But what makes the story about Griffin stand out in my mind?
The author, who is none other than Sarah Phillips. Yes, THAT Sarah Phillips. Follow the link for a compelling drama that will embroil you for 20 minutes (Plus, if you don’t click it, the end of my column won’t make sense).
And maybe that highlights the biggest sacrifice we’ve given in adopting new technology: putting a face to a byline and a byline to a story. In the age of newspapers, local and national journalists were highly trained public figures with reputations and coveted positions to protect. Nowadays, a person like Sarah Phillips (if she has ever even written a keystroke) can engage in alleged cybercrime while maintaining a polished public image with one of the leading media outlets in the world. Outside of Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m not sure anyone could pull that off without the help of the interwebs.
Don’t call me old-fashioned — I appreciate the benefits the Internet presents to writers as much as the next guy. I just hope a generation of budding consumers grows wary to the pitfalls that increased access and dissemination to the press presents.