Reporting has become a perilous business in the era of social media, shaved to seconds, not hours, in the pursuit of scoops and breaking news.
Using Twitter, Facebook and other Internet outlets, news is instantaneous. As we've seen in innumerable gaffes on these platforms lately, there is precious little time for reflection or fact-checking.
Nowhere was the breath-taking speed more conspicuous than last Monday's NHL trade deadline day, where scoops – when they finally arrived in earnest five hours into the network TV shows – came quickly. By our count, Rogers Sportsnet nudged slightly ahead of TSN on the scoop category (the prized pelt of BlackBerry journalism) in relation to the 15 deals of the day.
But how do TSN and Sportsnet fact-check under the white-hot glare of instant deadlines? Do they use the same protocols? Is there time for a background call to verify trade details when your opponent can trump you in a heartbeat?
In talking to both networks, the formula appears to be equal amounts of reporter experience, reliable sources and a small amount of bailout in the term "pending league approval."
TSN's Bob McKenzie is the dean of TV hockey reporters. In an e-mail to Usual Suspects, McKenzie talked about the evolution of his role.
"I can tell you that the game has changed significantly over the years. Not that long ago, I want to say seven or eight years ago, we wouldn't go to air, even on deadline day, unless we had pretty much every detail of a trade – both sides of it anyway – nailed down. But the immediacy of Twitter, society's acceptance of getting the various pieces of a story fed to them bit by bit as they become apparent, has become the norm. I mean, it's almost like we're doing play-by-play of news stories now, as opposed to waiting for one final, finished product with a bow on it."
The "out" when a deal goes wrong is the catchall "pending the trade call." That's why on a day like last Monday, TSN implicitly trusts McKenzie and colleagues Darren Dreger, Gord Miller and Pierre LeBrun.
"With over 100 years of experience between our 'insiders' we have faith they have the judgment, expertise, and instincts to decide what gets reported," TSN senior vice-president of production Mark Milliere says. "Their track record is unassailable, and we all take great pride in that."
Rogers Sportsnet V-P of news and information programming Scott Woodgate says his side's protocol is to have every trade vetted before announcing it.
"Nothing goes to air without being seen by our executive producer of hockey, Scott Morrison," Woodgate says. "His history in journalism is pretty good. He has the experience you need in that position. We do apply the double-source rule on all our stories. In fact, we held up reporting the Sidney Crosby neck-injury story last month because we were trying to double source. Another reporter [at another outlet]went with a single source and got burned."
But even the best protocols can be sideswiped by a ringing phone, as we saw last Monday, when Sportsnet analyst Nick Kypreos's phone went off on set. He answered it and announced – live – that Columbus Blue Jackets forward Sami Pahlsson had been traded to the Vancouver Canucks.
Kypreos's source proved accurate, and it was on to other stories. But, as McKenzie says: "First and foremost, get it right and if you're first, great, But if you get it first and it's not right, you're not going to last long in this business."