Yesterday afternoon, or if back home in England, yesterday evening, a strange thing happened in the crazy world of soccer journalism and social networking that illustrated, to me at least, the huge power that has now developed across Twitter, Facebook and other popular network sites. It all started with news out of The Independent newspaper at around 3.00pm CT (09.00pmGMT) that Man Utd and Sir Alex Ferguson were ready to sell Wayne Rooney in the January transfer window. It was reported first on Twitter by BBC Football writers Howard Nurse and Phil McNulty, both revered in their field as journalists and both with impeccable credentials. They had locked on to the original story written by Chief Football writer at the Independent, James Lawton, and now it appeared that the race was on to clarify the breaking news.
Almost immediately, Wayne Rooney and his wife, Coleen, jumped in to the fray and described the news as “absolute rubbish” with Ms Rooney expressing her disgust at more media trash. What had also come to light was that The Independent had actually delayed the print deadline for tomorrow’s newspaper until midnight Friday, a highly unusual decision, presumably taken in response to some obviously serious questions about the truth of the story. Following on, Man Utd then issued a combined statement that read as follows,
“Any suggestion that Manchester United and Wayne Rooney are to part company is complete nonsense.The player & manager have always had and retain utmost respect for each other and look forward to working together in the coming seasons.”
Many independent bloggers had already commented back and forth regarding the validity of the claims by James Lawton to the point where the BBC must have felt the need to try to contact the writer and find out what the real story was. To his credit, Lawton came on to BBC Radio Five Live and defended his article vehemently but as the questioning continued, it became clear that some “artistic license” had been used by his bosses at the newspaper to add spice to the headline. What Lawton had actually written was that because of the recent discipline issues between Rooney and Ferguson regarding some late night curfew violations over the Christmas period, that relations between manager and player had deteriorated and that there may come a time when there would be genuine concerns. Following Lawton’s interview, it was clear that the rumor was nothing more than a trumped up headline to create interest before Man utd’s crucial FA Cup 3rd Round clash against their crosstown rivals Man City on Sunday.
What I find very interesting is that Twitter members were able to watch this all unfold before their eyes from start to finish and to Man Utd’s credit, their PR department sprung into action in double quick time to get ahead of the headline and totally squash the rumors. I’m also convinced that without the real-time abilities of social networking, that the story would have been published as written and the first we would have heard would have been on our newspaper stands tomorrow morning which would have made dealing with the rumor mill tremendously more difficult for club and player.
What remains to be seen is how The Independent will handle the story in the newspaper on Saturday morning. Will they in fact still go with the story knowing that it has been totally refuted, or will they re-work the article to reflect the developments from Rooney and the club. They may even decide to scrap the story altogether which I doubt.
This whole fascinating episode gave me a small thumbnail sketch into how media and particularly newspaper writers, can twist and turn a story to suit the moment or the circumstances in order to create the maximum “shock” effect.
Thankfully, this time it didn’t work.