washingtonpost.com
The toll of Mike Wise's false tweet on Ben Roethlisberger

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, September 5, 2010; A15

Last week, Post sportswriter and columnist Mike Wise was suspended for a month after he jokingly fabricated a news scoop and published it to his Twitter account. Did the punishment fit the crime?

There's disagreement among readers and within The Post's newsroom.

The basic facts surrounding the suspension are not in dispute. During his weekday radio show on WJFK (106.7 FM) last Monday, Wise mentioned Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had been suspended for six games by the NFL after a college student accused him of sexually assaulting her. In lighthearted banter with a sidekick, Wise said he had it on "good authority" that Roethlisberger's suspension would be reduced to five games. He said he planned to publish it to his Twitter account as an experiment to show how unverified information often is picked up and spread online. Soon, he tweeted: "Roethlisberger will get five games, I'm told." (On Friday, the NFL reduced it to four games.)

Sure enough, several Web sites quickly noticed and put it out to their own online audiences, citing Wise. In later tweets, Wise playfully said he couldn't reveal his source, but joked, "it was a casino employee in Lake Tahoe." By then, it was apparent that his hot news item was phony.

His Post bosses were soon in touch with him, and they weren't laughing. By day's end, his tweets turned penitent. Wise told his followers that his experiment had proved two things: "I was right about nobody checking facts or sourcing," and "I'm an idiot. Apologies to all involved."

Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli suspended Wise for a month. On his radio program the next day, Wise offered a lengthy apology and said the suspension was warranted given his "horrendous mistake."

It sparked debate that continued through the week. Some in The Post's newsroom wanted him fired. Others said the suspension was excessive. Readers also were split.

"I don't think he should be punished for something he did on the radio to be entertaining," e-mailed Ted Bush of Falls Church.

Similar sentiments were expressed in online comments. Wise's tweet "was not detrimental to anyone in any way," wrote a reader who goes by the screen-name NovaMike.

But many others were aghast and called for his head.

"His actions fall so far short of basic journalism rules that you should be left with no choice but to fire him," Paul Kirby of Silver Spring said in an e-mail to Brauchli.

John C. Wood of Salem, Mass., wrote that it is "absolutely shocking" that Wise would "intentionally fabricate a scoop for the sole purpose of misleading other news organizations or aggregators to prove some kind of point."

Wise, a gifted sports journalist, is one of The Post's franchise players and has a sizable print, online and radio following. Many readers argued that his tweets were misguided but harmless. Others also noted his antics were part of a radio shtick and didn't appear in The Post.

But The Post's internal rules say explicitly that when using social media, "we must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists."

Further: "Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or our Web site."

For journalists operating in today's multimedia world, there's no excuse for a lack of awareness about the risks and responsibilities of social media. It's a topic of endless discussion in the industry and at The Post. The fact that Wise's "experiment" was somewhat premeditated only underscores his bad judgment.

But at its core, what Wise did isn't about social media. It's about fabrication, which is indefensible, even if done in jest. Our business is truth. A journalist's falsehood on Twitter is the same as a falsehood in the paper.

Steve Anderson of Reston, who believes Wise got off easy, wrote that he proved his theory that other media will pass along unverified information. "But at what cost?" he asked.

The cost is in credibility, which increasingly is a news organization's most cherished asset.

Wise was lucky he wasn't sacked. A month seems a light sentence. Perhaps his bosses were swayed by his contrition. In my own discussions with him, his effusive regret seemed heartfelt.

In his radio apology announcing his own suspension, Wise said "Integrity, being right before being first, is the only thing genuine journalists have left in this world." He correctly added that his own "stupid, irresponsible experiment" had "cost me a chunk of my own credibility."

And The Post's.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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