For three hours on Monday, Shaka Smart apparently was the 17th head men’s basketball coach in Marquette history.
And from the moment that apparent report surfaced on social media until Thursday evening, when I confirmed a report from Garry Parrish that Smart was no longer considering the job, every moment spent on social media, on my phone and on various message boards became an invaluable learning experience I hope every young journalist, myself included, takes something from.
At 3:46 p.m. on Monday, a sophomore reporter at Marquette tweeted, “Sources say Shaka Smart is going to be the next head coach for (Marquette) and is headed to Milwaukee right now.” He wasn’t the first to tweet on Smart rumblings, as 247 Sports’ Jerry Meyer and Brew City Ball’s Jim Ganzer both mentioned that a deal was likely to happen. Earlier in the day ESPN’s Jeff Goodman had written that Marquette (and Wake Forest) were interested in Smart and had reached out to the VCU head coach, a move that made sense given the Golden Eagles’ vast resources and Smart’s flirtations with other schools in previous offseasons.
But the Marquette student’s tweet, in particular, seemed to set ablaze the Twitterverse. All of a sudden there was an announcement set for 5 p.m., something the sophomore tweeted and the almost-always reliable John Dodds also confirmed from his rarely-used Twitter account. The only problem, of course, was that no one from Marquette’s athletic department reported any upcoming announcement.
5 p.m. rolled around, and the Marquette administration brought out its sense of humor, announcing the location of the postseason banquet, leaving reporters at the Al McGuire Center expecting a Smart announcement empty-handed.
90 minute later Goodman, in my opinion the most reputable source in college basketball media, put the rumors to rest in tweeting that a rumored Smart deal was neither done nor imminent. But 30 minutes later, Ganzer tweeted the following: “Shaka Smart is the new coach at Marquette…Done Deal,” a complete 180 from what Goodman had just written. Michael Hunt, Andrew Gruman and I each refuted that report, or more accurately the declaration, shortly after. That didn’t stop multiple local TV stations from going ahead with one of Ganzer’s statement or the sophomore’s report, resulting in an embarrassing compilation of packages put together by Deadspin that night.
The next morning the script had flipped entirely, with ESPN’s Adam Finkelstein and Goodman both reporting it was unlikely Smart would take the Marquette job. Finkelstein noted that VCU’s 2014 recruiting class had been contacted by Smart, while Goodman wrote in a chat that Smart was “leaning towards turning (Marquette’s offer) down.”
On Wednesday the trail went cold, presumably as Marquette put together one last run at Smart, who it appeared was looking more like a “no” than a “yes,” and certainly not a done deal by any stretch. The biggest news on Wednesday was that interim athletic director Bill Cords would hold a press conference on Thursday regarding an update on the coaching search, which all but silenced any potential hiring being announced that day.
More reports surfaced Thursday that the Marquette administration had taken a plane to Richmond, Va., to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Smart in what now appears to be a last-ditch effort more than anything. A source within the Marquette program denied such a visit, which made sense considering Cords had the aforementioned press conference that afternoon. Given a nearly two-hour flight from Milwaukee to Richmond, according to TravelMath.com, that’s a pretty quick turnaround to get it all done in an afternoon.
At that press conference, Cords told a story of a friend congratulating him on hiring Smart, to which he replied, “That’s the first I knew about anything.” Hours later Parrish’s report surfaced, followed by Goodman’s, followed by confirmation on my end from a source within the program.
Shaka Smart went from being the head coach at Marquette on Monday afternoon to no longer a candidate Thursday evening. In 75 hours the entire process was turned on its head thanks to inaccurate reporting and irresponsible jumping of the gun that would make any journalist, 25 years old or 65 years old, shudder. It was an embarrassing time to be grouped in with local reporters who, in an attempt to be first in uncovering the biggest Marquette story in years, broke the first rule of journalism: report the facts.
A journalist, outside of God-given talent, has two powerful tools with which to use: social media and sources.
The first has changed the way reporting is conducted entirely. In 140 characters, reporters can reach tens of thousands — in some cases millions — of people with the click of a button on Twitter, and that’s exciting. It allows for conversations to occur between fans, between reporters and consumers and between fellow reporters. It allows us reporters to stay informed, promote our individual and company brands and, above all else, distribute accurate information to followers on a 24-hour news cycle platform that a few years ago didn’t exist.
There’s also a responsibility factor that intertwines with every move we make. Because someone’s always watching when the correct information is distributed, just as many, if not more, observe when the wrong information is relayed – accidentally spell a player’s name wrong and watch the hyenas (rightfully) pounce. It’s the territory that comes with success, even on a small scale.
When I spoke with Buzz Williams this past summer in his office, he spoke freely on a number of topics, including success:
“Momentum is the hardest thing to get, but it’s the hardest thing to keep,” he told me. “You run all day long so you can be Keith Olbermann. OK, when you become Keith Olbermann, you’re going to do what? Run faster. You see what happens is, what got you to Keith Olbermann will not get you to Larry King.”
Say what you will about Williams, but that quote is a piece of advice I have never forgotten. There’s no such thing as complacency if you want to advance in your respective field, and it breeds responsibility that, in the digital age, begins with Twitter, where your personal opinions, information you deem fit to share and reputation are available for thousands to see — and dissect — as soon as you click that “Tweet” button.
And within that responsibility, sources are the most valuable and dangerous asset a journalist has at his or her disposal.
Search for the word “source” among the journalists you follow, and all the results will come up in similar fashion. “Source:”; “sources tell…”; “a source revealed to…”; “according to multiple sources…”; “per league sources.”
The word itself is always the same, but all sources are not created equal.
In the case of Marquette’s sophomore, all he said on Twitter was that his report came via “multiple non-Internet sources”; Ganzer wrote on his message board that none of his sources came from Marquette. The latter created a perplexing issue. Ganzer is, indeed, one of the most reputable Marquette sources of information. He has the early scoop on many recruiting commitments, had the trust and respect of Buzz Williams and the coaching staff and has built a well-respected message board chock full of good and, more importantly, accurate information.
But all it took for either — or any local TV station — was one phone call/text/email to anyone in the Marquette program to put to bed the rumors. Sure, it’s completely feasible that Marquette sources — the same one(s) who spoke with Hunt, Gruman and me — simply did not want the leak of Smart joining the Golden Eagles getting out. Had a deal with Smart been reached, it’s likely the VCU head coach would have wanted time to get things in order, speak with his team and say his goodbyes in a proper manner. Even still, the tweets would have looked entirely different had either included that “a Marquette source could not confirm the report.” Think about how each tweet and TV broadcast would have read.
There were two sets of people who undoubtedly could have been trusted in the Smart search: someone involved with the search itself on Marquette’s end, or anyone in Smart’s camp. Anyone else was secondhand, at best, and said reporters using them staked their reputation on that information being accurate.
And that’s the lesson to be learned. Twitter is an incredible medium with which to share information, but the platforms with the highest rewards usually include the biggest risks, and this is no exception. Sources can be crucial in breaking new information a story, but it also puts a reporter’s reputation in someone else’s hands. It’s not enough to shrug your shoulders when a source is wrong; the second you relay an anonymous source’s information, you own it, it’s now yours.
The lessons of Monday’s fiasco do NOT include staying away from Twitter, shying away from sharing accurate news a reporter has received, or to doubt anonymous sources. One of my Twitter followers put it perfectly Thursday morning, writing that, “Twitter followers have to do the job editors used to do: Filter noise to find good information.” That’s not to take the onus away from the journalists; hell, even reporters are included in that filtering and weeding out unreliable and unconfirmed particulars. And part of that includes finding sources of our own so that accurate information comes to light, no matter how long it takes.
CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley addressed this exact topic last May, advising journalists at Quinnipiac University to stop worrying about being right and begin searching for the right answers, without a timetable.
“If you’re first, no one will ever remember,” he said. “If you’re wrong, no one will ever forget.”