Thursday saw several sports news sites scrambling due to what appeared to be credible releases of information on James Harrison and Ryan Clark that were later verified as untrue. The motivation for the “leak” has yet to be determined, but has forced media outlets to seek out the origin of the “source” and attempt to recover from what appears to have been a campaign of misinformation.
Ryan Clark, now with the Washington Redskins, sent out a Twitter message verifying news that he was retiring from the NFL were untrue and that he had not signed paperwork to that effect. Clark also stated via Twitter that he would release that information himself if it were true.
Burt Lauten in the PR office of the Pittsburgh Steelers verified via Twitter that James Harrison had not signed a one-year deal with the team for 2015. He did not specify any other details, but simply stated the information was “not true”.
While both Clark and Harrison have played for the Steelers, the mystery remains whether the release of false information was targeted at the team itself, sports media that cover the team or simply a self-serving move to garner attention while attempting to destroy the credibility of media outlets.
” Verifying source information is critical to credibility and journalistic ethics,” said Sheldon Dean Thursday afternoon. “The fact that the source added that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could verify the authenticity of the information made it appear even more credible. I can’t say what motivated any individual(s) to practice that type of deception, but it is a blow to sports news sites and journalists that have an interest in Harrison and Clark. It is a strike against fans as well. I would go so far as to say it was intentional.”
Neal Coolong of the site Behind the Steel Curtain reported that the information regarding Clark came from NBC4 in Washington, D.C. The source was reportedly Dianna M Russini. She used Twitter as well to reveal the “news” and said Clark would be “a star at ESPN”.
In the time of social media and widespread internet access, vetting sources has become increasingly difficult. Twitter has several accounts in the name of real celebrities, sports stars and public figures that are considered ‘satire’ accounts. Unfortunately, that is not often made clear. Moving forward, news outlets will be forced to be even more reluctant to protect true sources’ identities due to misinformation practices that have become commonplace.
While thorough investigations into the source(s) continue, the real possibility is that the originator may never be revealed due to the relative anonymity that social media and the internet provide. What was once considered to be the highest of ethical standards in verification of press releases now moves into unchartered waters of protecting first amendment speech and freedom of the press while gathering credible information.
Regardless of the consequences, there will likely remain those with personal motives to intentionally share information that is false or only partially true. That will also put a higher demand on the PR departments of sports teams to react, challenge confidentiality clauses, directly challenge athletes to respond publicly and turn media into an even bigger circus.
Note: The Post-Gazette never released verification that they had received information regarding Harrison. Harrison has not publicly commented on the information alleged about him at this time, either.