Mike Wise’s Whale of a Fail

HonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

Ben_roethlisberger Can you trust news from the internet?

That’s the question Washington Post sportswriter and radio personality Mike Wise seemed to ask when he posted a fabricated “scoop” about the fate of Pittsburg Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a few weeks ago.

The Steelers’ star player had been suspended for six games by the NFL, though football insiders widely believed the suspension would be reduced on appeal. Shortly before the NFL was due to announce its decision, Wise wrote a on his Twitter account – which identifies him as a writer for the Washington Post:

Roethlisberger will get five games, I'm told.

In fact, Wise had not spoken to anyone. He made up the information and posted it on Twitter as a stunt for his radio show to demonstrate that online media will pick up anything without verification. Five minutes later, Wise wrote another tweet admitting the hoax, but that followup tweet didn't get posted due to a glitch at Twitter. Wise only discovered the error when he finished taping his radio show – 40 minutes later.

In the meantime, mainstream publications such as the Miami Herald and the NBC sports blog, ProFootballTalk picked up on the tweet, carefully attributing the information to Wise.

The stunt didn't involve the Washington Post directly, but editors considered it a major breach of rules for reporters – specifically the ones against making things up and publishing them. The Post suspended Wise one month for harming the paper's credibility. Since then, Wise has made the rounds on talk shows, taking full responsibility for his actions.

Fail-whale As the issue continues to be discussed online, it's worth examining Wise’s “experiment” and what it says about attitudes towards social media in some sectors.

Notably, Wise didn't experiment by fabricating information in his Post column. But he had no problem posting false information on Twitter, even if he intended to “correct” the record quickly. Apparently, platforms such as Twitter inherently lack credibility to some people.

But the storm surrounding the experiment gone awry proves that Wise misunderstood a key principle about social media – one that makes it different from the mainstream media: It isn't the platforms that have the credibility but the people who use them. The Miami Herald and others accepted Wise’s tweet because they trusted that Wise, as a Post reporter, properly verified the story.

They relied on the source, not the information.

In the end, Wise proved the opposite of his original intention. Instead of showing that the Internet lacked journalistic ethics, he put a spotlight on his own lapse, harming his and the Post's credibility.

But what about Wise's main point – that bloggers and Internet aggregators post information without verification? There may be truth to that point.

But someone will have to find a better way to prove it.

Previously in Alex's series: What Is Online Conversation?