“Gotcha Tweets”–Nothing We Can’t Stop


Jonathan Bullard is a senior defensive tackle for Florida.  He passed on the NFL draft to return for his senior season, and is having a great year as a defensive leader for the Gators.

But for the right now, he is noteworthy for the following statement he made about how to defend LSU running back Leonard Fournette:

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It might seem like careless trash talk, but that was not happening here.

The Bullard tweet was taken from a longer quote (via @CodyWorsham): “He’s the best back in the league. We’re just going to have to rally to the ball to tackle him.  I don’t think it’s … he’s nothing we can’t stop, but we all have to rally to the ball, because he’s an excellent athlete.”

Confident, but not exactly bulletin board trash talk. But as tweeted by Mark Long of the Associated Press, the snippet was featured in articles by Bleacher Report and FOXSports.com (and a few LSU fan sites, I’d guess0.

In fairness, others presented the quote in its largest context, like Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com, Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, and Des Bieler of the Washington Post.

Fournette had been the subject of similar talk in recent weeks.  When asked about stopping Fournette before the Auburn-LSU game, Rudy Ford of Auburn said, “That shouldn’t be difficult, that much, of a challenge.”

To their credit, Auburn beat writers like Tom Green (@AUblog at @oanow) included quotes from elsewhere in Ford’s presser, but it was not the complete thought that Bullard provided.

College football fans remember how well that turned out — Auburn fans with particular pain.  And Ford’s disinterested attempt at tackling Ford on a long run (more a version of “one-hand touch”) didn’t make his life any easier after Fournette’s 228 yards on 19 carries.

The question is, did Long do right by Bullard? Obviously not. The quote was tweeted out of context, and I would predict that a small percentage of college football fans sought out the longer quote.

Bullard at first expressed his displeasure with what Long had done.

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Long did provide the longer quote more than an hour later, and acknowledged what happened to Bullard in a Twitter exchange.  Bullard, showing amazing class for how he had been misquoted, was gracious in his reply:

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But the damage had been done.

Anyone who knows media knows that the Associated Press is not a hot take machine. I did a temporary assignment for them way back in 1978, right out of college, and have always had a “gold-standard” level of respect for them.

I am not as familiar with Long as I am with the Alabama AP crew, but I would guess (and hope) that he does not gotcha-tweet too much.

That said (“hot take” pushers can stop reading here), anyone who considers himself or herself a journalist should understand the need to avoid out-of-context quotes, particularly on Twitter.

The SPJ Code of Ethics puts it this way: “Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”  To the extent that Twitter does all three, it’s a relevant caution.

There seems to be extra caution, perhaps additional care, in working with college student-athletes, who sometimes lack media savvy.

Bullard, as a senior, could be expected to know better, and he did better, as his complete quote showed. Ford should simply be smarter, period. But sometimes a young athlete speaks unwisely. It is up to the individual journalist to know when to take the ball and run with it, or when to the hand the ball back and say, “Did you mean to give me this?”

Regardless of the age or media experience of the source, it is also up to journalists to treat all sources fairly, especially on Twitter. To paraphrase, a tweet makes its way around the world while a complete, contextual report is still putting on its boots.

Let’s make sure the tweets that we send into orbit are grounded in fairness and context.

The Watchdog vs. The (Baylor) Bear

The Texas Monthly expose on Baylor and Sam Ukwuachu will produce enough troubling questions — for head coach Art Briles and Baylor associate dean Bethany McCraw in particular.

The story, or lack of it, should also trouble sports journalists.  According to reports, the assault happened in October 2013.  The Waco Police Department did not press charges and sent the case to the district attorney for evaluation.  In March 2014, the assistant DA Hilary Laborde decided to move ahead.  On June 25, 2014, a grand jury indicted Ukwuachu, and he was arrested.

This Deadspin article, great work by Diana Moskovitz, provides helpful details, including a copy of the true bill of indictment returned by the grand jury.

This is where things begin to get murky.

As Moskovitz points out, prosecutors’ choice to go the grand jury route does invite questions, because a grand jury process is, by nature and law, more secretive than a public arrest.  When an athlete, or any suspect, is arrested, the accompanying mugshots, and sometimes even “perp walks,” draw attention.

Still, in McLennan County, once someone is indicted, it is publicized.  Supposedly.

The Waco Tribune-Herald posts indictments twice a month to its website, and those indictments remain available for public viewing.  The report of June 25, 2014, indictments, when Ukwuachu was indicted, mentions more than 100 names, and five specifically mention some form of sexual abuse.

Ukwuachu’s name does not appear in this list. Why not? Was the name redacted from the list before it was given to the Waco newspaper?

According to Texas Monthly, when the requested information on Ukwuachu’s indictment and arrest, the received “a letter declaring that all information outside of the Incident Report following Doe’s visit to Hillcrest Hospital the day after her encounter with Ukwuachu was exempt from the law requiring disclosure.”

Still, if that’s the case, under what judgment was Ukwuachu’s name deleted from a public list, and not the rest?  If it’s exempt from “the law requiring disclosure,” why publicize indictments at all?  The 100-plus folks whose arrests were publicized would wish they got the same break as Ukuwuachu.

True, McLennan County DA Abelino Reyna is a 1997 graduate of Baylor Law School. With no specific response on his office’s part, however, the question remains, and is troubling.

It should also be mentioned that the prosecuting DA, LaBorde, also went to Baylor, but that did not stop her from investigating and then prosecuting Ukwuachu

I have reached out to the Waco Tribune-Herald via e-mail.  The McLennan County DA’s office (no e-mail listed) has refused all interview requests.

The first report appeared in the Tribune-Herald on Aug. 5, more than 13 months after the indictments were handed down.  The lag time invites questions, particularly related to the local newspaper’s function as a watchdog.

As any competent sports writer, college or pro, will tell you, the good reporters know how to uncover such information. Whether through strategic Web searches or well-placed sources, they know when players are arrested amazingly soon after it happens and can guide their readers through the court process.

Court-related documents are available online through databases like Scribd, as Moskovitz demonstrated in her article.

But before casting too much blame on the newspaper, realize that no reporter’s system can do everything, and an insular community like Waco is a prime culture to thwart such information gathering.  For whatever reason, the public did not learn of the announcement until twelve days before the trial itself began.

According to the Deadspin article, Judge Matt Johnson did issue a gag order, but that did not happen until Aug. 7 of this year, shortly before the trial began.

As the handling of the Ukwuachu case is discussed, concern will be directed at Baylor personnel, who admitted a player with problems at his previous school.  Dan Wolken rightly took Briles to task in a USA Today column for putting Ukwuachu’s victim, and every female at Baylor, at risk by allowing him to transfer in.

This concern relates closely to constitutional guarantees for open trials.  This right belongs not to the media, but to the public.  Community members have a right to know what is going on in matters that relate to their public safety, and it is the news media’s duty to provide that information.

When information is withheld from the public, as it was in the list of indictments published on the WacoTrib.com website, the system has failed, and citizens deserve to know how and why.

Is Disclosing Medical Records an Unhealthy Reporting Method?

First published on al.com.  Click here.

Note: This column includes implied obscenity in a tweet presented later in the article.

To anyone who doesn’t know, ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter caused quite the ethical dust-up when he ran a tweet showing Jason Pierre-Paul’s medical records.

To quickly dismiss one objection: no, Schefter did not break the law.  He did not violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) by showing it.  The medical professional who leaked the info to Schefter did.

Schefter is not in legal hot water for disclosing information, even if someone else obtained illegally.  The Supreme Court decided that in Bartnicki v. Vopper, where a radio station played illegally wiretapped conversation between teachers union officials during tense negotiations in Wilkes Barre, Pa.

The court found “a stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.”  Schefter operates under the same shield.

That might sound like the equivalent of accepting stolen property and getting away with it, but the Supreme Court treats news-related information differently.

But law does not equal ethics.  The question is, did Schefter violate journalistic ethics here?  As with many such questions, the answer is determined by where you stand on ethics.  There is, however, another issue here, a constant with ESPN: ethical transparency.

Many argue that Schefter should have declined to show Pierre-Paul’s medical records and merely reported the information, anonymously sourced.  Showing an individual’s private medical information crossed a line, to them.

What is troubling to me — and always has troubled me — is that ESPN ignored its commitment, as a news media organization, to be transparent about this ethical decision.  I watched Schefter’s live report on ESPN SportsCenter.  It was all news, zero reflection.

In its September 2014 revision to its code of ethics, less than a year ago, the Society of Professional Journalists added the words “and transparent” to its fourth major standard, “be accountable.”

The resulting exhortation, “Be Accountable and Transparent,” includes the following sentences of explanation and application: “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public. … Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

As I write this blog, ESPN has not done this and certainly did not choose to do this early in its reporting.  It could have been handled so simply — with two or three sentences of explanation by Schefter.  But for whatever reason, Schefter and his producers decided not to take the time, even with the existence of ethical disagreement within the profession and the audience.

I wrote about this in al.com a couple of years ago — regarding Joe Schad’s reporting of alleged autograph selling by Johnny Manziel.  It is sad to see that apparently nothing has changed.

Don’t expect to hear from ESPN on this through its ombudsman blog.  The network has not updated the blog since Dec. 3, 2014, when Robert Lipsyte ended an excellent stint.  It is a sad, and telling, omission.

So where does it go from here? Nowhere?  Maybe not.

I see another layer to this debate, and it relates to Schefter’s relationship with his anonymous sources within the league.  Note the following tweet by former Steeler James Harrison:

Apologies for Harrison’s language, but it does raise the question: How will Schefter’s sources within the league respond to this?  One reason a journalist never breaks a pledge to an anonymous source, even risking imprisonment, is because of the damage it would cause to other source relationships, and these are an investigative journalist’s lifeblood.

It will be interesting to see if Schefter gets any pushback from his sources — players, agents or team officials — because of this.  Players might punish him for damaging an unsigned colleague’s negotiating power.  Agents and team officials might be more likely to look the other way.

All of these considerations weigh in to a serious ethical discussion in a matter like this.  And as the SPJ code encourages, and ESPN once again ignored, it’s best to include your audience in that ethical discussion.

John Carvalho is an associate professor of journalism at Auburn University.  A former sports journalist himself, he discusses sports media issues at @John_P_Carvalho.