Viral Golden State Warriors story shows media needs to play better defense

June 16, 2017
A close up shot of the Golden State Warriors celebrating on the court after winning Game Five of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 12 at Oracle Arena. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Golden State Warriors this season, it’s that they’re extremely good at basketball. If there’s a second thing, it might be that they don’t like Donald Trump.

Head coach Steve Kerr thinks Trump is “a bully” and “a blowhard” who “couldn’t be more ill-suited to be president.” Star point guard Stephen Curry called the president an ass, only somewhat coyly. Reserves David West and Andre Iguodala aren’t fans, either.

So the story that circulated Tuesday morning, just hours after the Warriors clinched the NBA title with a Game 5 victory in Oakland, seemed plausible enough: The team had apparently decided, by unanimous vote, to skip the customary champion’s trip to the White House. The story gained steam on Twitter, and by the time Warrior fans on the West Coast were shrugging off their championship hangovers, the story had appeared on the websites of NBC Sports, the Kansas City Star, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and other mainstream news outlets.

You’ll notice, if you click those links, that they’ve all been updated since they were first posted. That’s because the story, as originally reported, was certainly unsubstantiated and probably untrue. The Warriors issued a statement saying the team had not been invited and would make a decision if and when an invitation came.

The original story was, in the words of a Vocativ headline, “viral B.S.”

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Whether the NBA champions decided by team vote to not visit the White House is, in the grand scheme of things, a small story. But it’s illustrative of how a story goes from tweet, to news item, to news item aggregated by dozens of sites, to news item walked back by most of those outlets, to rumor classified as “false” by Snopes.

It appears to have started at 7:10 am ET, with a tweet from Josh Brown, a CNBC contributor and the CEO of a New York wealth management firm. “NBA champion Warriors skipping the White House visit, as a unanimous team decision per reports,” he wrote. Within a few hours, the tweet had tens of thousands of retweets.

The fact that Brown isn’t a journalist and had never covered the Golden State Warriors or posted any breaking news on the team before should have been a red flag to the journalists aggregating this story.

Brown did not link to any of the “reports” he referred to. He deleted the tweet later that day, and he didn’t respond to requests for comment from CJR.

In a Twitter exchange with The Big Lead’s Jason McIntyre, Brown said he was repeating a few other Twitter users who’d posted similar news. “I have no idea if its true, hence “per reports,” Brown wrote.

Brown then posted a screenshot of a tweet by Mike Sington, a retired Universal Studios exec, as a possible source for his claim. However, Sington’s tweet was actually posted 50 minutes after Brown’s, making it an unlikely source.

Shortly after Brown tweeted his “scoop,” it was repeated in a (since-deleted) tweet by Shaun King, the social justice writer for the New York Daily News. King wrote later in the day that although “the CNBC contributor may have jumped the gun,” the Warriors are very unlikely to visit the White House, based on King’s conversations with players and team employees.

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It’s not clear exactly how Brown’s tweet made the jump to the news pages, but King’s repetition of the claim may have played a part. Dan Feldman, a writer for NBC Sports, was one of the first journalists to write on the matter, posting his story two hours after Brown’s first tweet.

“I saw the Shaun King tweet first, which did not refer to Josh Brown,” Feldman says. “It was just a declarative statement that the Warriors voted unanimously. I thought Shaun King had reported that. … We wouldn’t have posted that if I’d seen where it originally came from.”

Nick Miller, the editor in chief of the Oakland-based alternative weekly the East Bay Express, attributed his article only to Brown and other unnamed Twitter users.

“I saw a lot of tweets about it, and I Googled it to see who’s reporting it, and I saw legit, above-board media companies with legit sports journalists, and I thought, damn, these look like legit reports,” Miller says. “Clearly, it was bad judgment by a lot of editors, including myself, because it wasn’t accurate.”

Ray Cox, a senior editor for sports at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said his paper decided to go with the story in part because Brown’s Twitter account is verified, and he’s affiliated with CNBC.

“That’s one of our standard things on any aggregation: Is the information being shared from an account that’s verified, and is it a journalist, versus anybody else?” Cox says. “In hindsight, I wish we had dug a little deeper, but everybody was doing the same thing and writing it. That’s the aggregation world we’re in, whether we’re comfortable with it or not.”

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Brown, of course, is a money manager and a television stock-picker, not a journalist. A CNBC spokesperson who declined to be quoted by name said that Brown is not an employee of the network. And the fact that he’s verified means only that Twitter believes he is who he says is, not that anything he has to say is reliable.

The fact that Brown isn’t a journalist and had never covered the Golden State Warriors or posted any breaking news on the team before should have been a red flag to the journalists aggregating this story. Another red flag: the attribution “per reports,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member for broadcast and online journalist at The Poynter Institute.

“The problem is, it’s not sourced on anything you can name. If you don’t know who to pin this to, you don’t know how credible it is,” Tompkins says.

If a news organization is going to do aggregation, it’s going to repeat items without fully verifying whether they’re true. The best way to minimize the risk of passing along viral bullshit is to think hard about the source of a story, and whether it’s credible on that particular story. If Josh Brown were passing along a stock tip, he might be a credible source. But the Warriors might be the most thoroughly covered team in sports; if they had really taken this team vote, why was Brown the first to report it, and not one of the local or national reporters who have been following the team and talking to the players all season?

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Another accepted best practice of aggregation—as summarized in this helpful primer from Poynter’s Vicki Kreuger—is to provide context and commentary, along with a link. In this case, analyzing the rumor and not just repeating it led to some of the better stories on the matter, including this one by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Scott Ostler, concluding that the team is in for a public relations mess no matter what it does.

“We never just aggregate something,” says Feldman, the NBC Sports writer. “We try to add our context and our analysis, and one of the ways I try to add context is looking at is this true, or is this not true? But the starting point has to be that it comes from someone who is generally credible.”

One of the challenges of news aggregation is that it requires a high level of trust between the reader and the writer, and between the writer and the other journalist whose work is being aggregated. Perhaps, Tompkins suggests, it’s time for news outlets that aggregate the work of others to put some sort of “shop at your own risk” disclaimer on their stories.

“The larger issue is, what responsibility do all of us have when we pass along a rumor that turns out to not be true?” Tompkins says. “I think there’s a moral issue there. … This was a small story, but it’s like the canary in the coal mine. If it will happen on something small, it can happen on something bigger.”

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.