Marshall: Sorting Out Fact From Fiction

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about his assignment of covering intercollegiate athletics.

The computer age, particularly as it is manifested on the Internet, have had a major impact on my profession. On almost a daily basis, those of us cover sports for a living are still trying to figure out how to respond.

For old guys like me, it almost leaves your head spinning sometimes. I've gone from the days of "hot type," to doing a daily blog on al.com. I've gone from typing on an old, black Underwood typewriter to doing virtually everything on computers.

I've gone from dictating stories over the telephone, to typing them and sending them on a painfully slow and unreliable telecopier, to using heavy and cumbersome portable computers that stored date on a cassette tape to being able to write stories that are instantly in my paper's computer system though I might be on the other side of the country.

I take some pride in the fact that I have, over the years, embraced those changes. I certainly wouldn't want to go back to the old days. But the Internet is an ever-changing phenomenon. How to deal with it and how to use it to our benefit is a question we deal with every day.

From a business perspective, it obviously has created immense challenges for newspapers nationwide. And it has brought major, major changes. There are no longer morning and afternoon news cycles. It's 24 hours a day, every day. People who once put their quarters in newspaper racks now can read all the newspapers they want to read sitting at their computers.

But the business and financial side of it is for others to worry about. For those who do what I do, the challenge is how to cope with the huge amounts of information that flow through cyberspace every day.

The availability of information is mostly a positive thing. Certainly, fans of any sport--even relatively obscure ones--have more information at their fingertips than ever before. The negative side of that is there is often no way to verify the accuracy of that information.

Particularly in sports and politics, message boards have sprouted like weeds. Internet sites like this one give voice to fans who never have to identify themselves. Real news often appears on message boards before it appears anywhere else. On the other hand, a lot of what is posted on those boards as fact often turns out to be anything but. That's because anyone with any agenda can post anything.

The result for reporters is that those things can send you off on a wild-goose chase, seeking to get to the bottom of stories that don't even exist. Yet, you ignore the information or misinformation that surfaces on the Internet at your own peril.

Often, there is a kernel of truth in a given issue that can be misinterpreted in a major way.

For example: Auburn football players' academic status in summer school seems to have been a major issue on message boards in recent days. While it's accurate to say that several Auburn players have work to do to remain eligible, it's not accurate to say those players are in academic trouble. There's probably not been a summer when numerous players didn't have work to do. And the classes they take during the summer are usually not the most challenging.

Auburn coaches don't expect to lose any of the players currently enrolled in summer school to academics problems.

There was a spate of posts about a player being supposedly academically ineligible. He wasn't and won't be, but his name was out there for days. That's an unfortunate aspect of the Internet. A person's name can be unfairly sullied by those who don't have to make their own names public.

Those who spend time surfing the web often get information that seems good but turns out not to be any good at all. They also often can find good, solid information there before they find it anywhere else.

So what do we do as reporters?

We continue to be vigilant. We ignore nothing and assume nothing. Information that shows up on the Internet might be valuable. It might be worthless. As reporters, our mission is to react to what is valuable and to discard what is worthless.

Often, the hard part is knowing the difference.

Yes, times have changed.


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