Journalists can often use Twitter wisely to interact with their audience and spread the word about their work. But the allure of social media's spur-of-the-moment reactions and the lack of editing or oversight on a journalist's Twitter feed can lead to intractable missteps.
Local Fox affiliate WDAF Channel 4 took to Twitter over the weekend and waded into a sports fracas that had nothing to do with any Kansas City-area team. And in the end, the station managed to manufacture its own news from the ordeal.
The biggest news from the weekend's slate of Big 12 Conference basketball was Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart getting fed up with an obnoxious Texas Tech fan late in their Saturday game in Lubbock, Texas.
Smart, who fell into the crowd behind one of the baskets following a fast-break was making his way back to his feet when he spun 180 degrees, made his way a couple of rows into the Texas Tech crowd and went nose-to-nose with a middle-aged fan named Jeff Orr.
Orr is one of those fans who seems to have too much time on his hands and travels to many of Texas Tech's games. He has developed a reputation for being a nuisance to opposing players.
Both men exchanged a few words and then Smart gave Orr a shove before Smart's teammates led him back to the court to receive his technical foul that sealed Oklahoma State's defeat. Smart spent the rest of the game on Oklahoma State's bench.
But the outcome of the game suddenly didn't much matter. The question on everyone's mind: What did that fan say or do to prompt Smart's reaction?
WDAF's sports Twitter feed, which is manned by Al Wallace and Jason Lamb, offered its own interpretation on what was said by using its admittedly dubious lip-reading skills.
The caustic allegation was picked up by other Twitter feeds, some of which filled in the blanks in the original tweet themselves to presume that Orr told Smart, a black man, to "Go back to Africa."
WDAF followed up with a tweet, warning that they never said Africa. Still, their tweet generated momentum (and misinformation) of its own, leading to subsequent tweets where people thought ABC affiliates in Oklahoma were reporting that Orr told Smart to "go back to Africa."
No news outlet that we could find actually picked up on the news from WDAF's tweet.
But sports news site Deadspin did the yeoman's work of reverse-engineering subsequent Twitter traffic
to show how WDAF's clumsy tweet led to widespread thinking about what was actually said.
WDAF has since deleted its tweet.
It's still not known for sure what was said in the run-up to the confrontation. Orr said in a statement released by Texas Tech that he called Smart a "piece of crap." Smart, who will sit out the next three Oklahoma State games on suspension, has not publicly said what he heard.
We reached out to WDAF's Wallace to hear about their rationale for offering the tweet and then pulling it down later. Wallace was not immediately available. We'll update the story if we hear back.