The role of Twitter in covering sports scandals

September 27, 2012

by Jimmy Sanderson

Sanderson and Marion E. Hambrick at the University of Louisville have an article published today in the International Journal of Sport Communication that explored how sports journalists used Twitter to cover the Penn State football scandal.

While sports journalists used Twitter in ways that were similar to traditional media channels (e.g., breaking news) a key finding was that sports journalists posted commentary that was very biased, reflecting a personal involvement that lacked any pretense of impartiality and objectivity. This personal investment also appeared as sports journalists had highly charged interaction with fans. Given the sensitivity of the story, coupled with their personal investment, these interactions were often confrontational. For example, one sports journalist responded to a fan’s tweet by re-tweeting “Hey look! A tweet from an idiot” while another sports journalist re-tweeted another fan’s comment with this caption, “Charles Manson called. He thinks you’re psycho.”

Another important finding was that sports journalists used Twitter to promote the work of their competitors. Sports journalists routinely endorsed columns from their peers working at competing outlets.

A third important finding is that Twitter is where the “action” unfolds when sports stories break. Sports journalists who want to maintain relevancy must be able to use Twitter to promote their stories, yet in the rush to be first with a scoop, there has been a rise of inaccurate information being reported. The speed and acceleration Twitter provides places sports journalists and media organizations into a dialectic of “being first vs. being right.”

Future efforts need to investigate the personal/professional boundaries for sports journalists. For example, in February, 2012, then CNCB reporter Darren Rovell and Richard Sandomir of the New York Times argued after Rovell tweeted that he had confirmed an earlier report by Sandomir that Madison Square Garden (the parent company of the New York Knicks) had settled a cable dispute with Time Warner. Sandomir believed Rovell’s tweet was an attack on the credibility of his story, while Rovell argued he was just verifying the story, per standard journalistic practice. This demonstrates the divergence opinion amongst sports journalists about journalistic standards in social media. For example, does a re-tweet equate as giving credit to another reporter for a story?

Other areas for future work include how journalists use social media to drive stories and how media organizations adjust traditional delivery systems to compete with social media. Consider that when singer Whitney Houston died, the news of her passing broke on Twitter approximately one hour before it was picked up by the mainstream media.

It is imperative that sports media organizations, sports journalists, and sports media researchers pay strict attention to social media and harness the power that these communicative channels provide. In other words, social media can no longer be ignored when sports news unfolds, and given the ability to frame messages, sports stakeholders must capitalize on these forums to competitively promote their agendas.

See related press release.

Image Caption: Jimmy Sanderson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Studies, Clemson University

For media inquiries, please contact Brian Mullen at (864) 656-2063 or

Links for further reading:

Science 2.0: “Can Twitter Detect Bias Among Sports Journalists?”

Journal of Sport Communication: “Covering the Scandal in 140 Characters: A Case Study of Twitter’s Role in Coverage of the Penn State Saga”

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