The Gruden Rumor: How it Started, Spread and Taught A Lesson

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“I didn’t take it from a reporters standpoint until Cody Benjamin direct messaged me and said, like, hey lets be in this together,” said Zavala “So finally I started re-tweeting his tweets and I really started to get into it because it sounded like Cody Benjamin was legitimate and had these really legitimate sources.”

Soon, Benjamin was citing Zavala’s tweets and she was re-tweeting his, and the rumor had snow-balled as Eagles fans believed that two reporters, albeit relatively unknown, were breaking major news.

By Monday morning, the rumor had gained enough steam that members of the media had to look into it and began making calls to the Eagles, who subsequently released a statement denying the hearsay.  Benjamin continued to tweet about his investigation and his sources’ confidence, but lacked concrete information.  By Monday night, even the fans and readers most invested in the story realized’s reporting wasn’t factual and on Tuesday Benjamin issued an apology on the site.

Opinion: Twitter and Sports Journalism

From a journalistic perspective, Cody Benjamin and Ashley Zavala made a litany of egregious errors. They didn’t fact-check the rumors they heard, they didn’t find primary sources and instead based their tweets or reports almost entirely on distant connections. If the two were employed by media outlets, they would have been quickly fired.  The thing is, they’re not.

Benjamin is still in high school, hoping to learn the craft and become a full-time sportswriter when he’s older.  Zavala is still in college, where young journalists are supposed to make their mistakes in a forgiving environment.  Five years ago, in the pre-Twitter age that seems ions ago, Zavala and Benjamin couldn’t have reached thousands of fans with their information.  Today they can, and that’s got its pros and cons.

Twitter is the end of journalism as we know it.

Talk to a reporter for more than five minutes about social media, and you’ll probably hear a variation of that phrase. Information can be disseminated faster than ever.  That’s the positive. At some level, journalists tend to be information junkies. We love getting new information and we can’t wait to share it. In that regard, Twitter is the virtual version of crack.  The highs are great, but the crashes leave you wondering how you hit rock bottom so quickly.

Reporters would idolize the founders of Twitter if they were the only ones with posting privileges, but anybody can sign up and send information. Even with only a couple hundred followers, the power of the re-tweet can spread your information to thousands of users – if it’s interesting enough.

A juicy Jon Gruden to Philadelphia rumor certainly qualifies, and when it spreads as fast as it did, at some point the media as a whole has to check into it.  Sure, Gruden was on television until 2 p.m. Sunday. Sure, nobody fires a coach right after allowing him to make a risky defensive coordinator hiring.  Sure, the timing was absurd.  But you can be damn sure that a reporter can’t risk losing his job because he was blindsided by the biggest story to hit the Philadelphia sports scene since the Michael Vick signing. Especially if that story was broken by a relatively unknown blogger.

That means that for the first time, consumers can control the media’s agenda. Cause enough outcry and they’ll have to look into something. In many ways, that can be a good thing – for the right cause.  At some point though, readers need to learn that everything you read on the Internet isn’t true.  There are no gatekeepers – no editors, no bosses, no pesky standards.  That means that what used to be water cooler gossip is now potential fodder for thousands, if not millions.

At some point, everyone will finish adjusting to the new technology.  There was a time when cable news channels created a 24-hour cycle that many thought would ruin journalism.  It changed it, but it didn’t ruin it. Once consumers learn to question the validity of what their reading and learn the difference between a tweet, a fan blog, a credible blog and a news outlet, things should settle down.  Until then, it could be a wild ride.

At least this time around, the final damage wasn’t too serious.  Andy Reid still has his job and, according to Forbes, a $5.5 million salary. The media spent a few extra hours chasing a non-story, but life goes on. Jon Gruden, on top of his ESPN salary, is still being paid by the Buccaneers (2011 is the last year of his old contract). Philadelphia fans got a couple of days of interesting discussion. Cody Benjamin and Ashley Zavala were fortunate enough to make their mistakes before entering the professional world, leaving the damage to their reputations reparable.

Lessons Learned

Benjamin and Zavala took some heat from followers on Twitter, and rightfully so.  But at the end of the day, their story was one of youthful enthusiasm gone awry. Mix in some inexperience, the desire to break a big story and social media, and sometimes even the best intentions can’t prevent the inevitable.

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