Transfer rumors are swarming like newly-hatched mosquitos in an unusually busy early summer for Newcastle United. With its veil of member anonymity and focus on gaining followers, Twitter is an ocean-sized breeding ground for pesky rumors, which also feed on message boards, blogs and bored or lazy journalists over their short but vigorous lifespan. Yesterday a couple of whoppers buzzed around the Toon Army, with the unlikely names Berbatov and Bentley attached.
This site's co-authors are former metropolitan sportswriters who once relied on bull$#!% recognition as a daily survival skill. Over adult beverages last night Tom and I had the idea of publishing a brief primer for our readers in the art of separating news from speculation. We came up with three things to watch for in protecting yourself from the sting of the fallacious rumor bug.
Sourcing. People with news to spread, be it in the Times or on Twitter, will usually be eager to say as much as possible about where it comes from, to lend credibility to what they're saying. A report with no source named or unnamed - not even "someone within the club" or "a source close to the player" - is likely to be made up. In the English press particularly, watch out for the passive tense, which is often used to cover up bad or nonexistent sourcing: "It is understood that United are pursuing Lionel Messi..." This is the journalistic equivalent to hearing a government official say "mistakes were made" rather than "I screwed up."
Detail. If you're reporting a story, details protect you. If you're making up a story, details expose you. The slim item without quotes (attributed or otherwise), or facts (like a bid with a £ or € value attached), or a chain of events is often bogus. This is why, for now, we believe United is more serious about Kevin Gameiro than other ostensible suitors like PSG (which hasn't made a reported bid) and more serious about Gervinho than other ostensible suitors like Arsenal (which hasn't been reported to be meeting at a particular time with the player). This is also why we believed Alan Pardew's account of Andy Carroll's departure more than Carroll's. Lies aren't as specific as Pardew's event-by-event narrative was. News is long; bull$#!% is short.
Corroboration. In an age of instant worldwide communication, news being reported for more than a few hours in only one place is probably not news. Reporters and others with inside sources will check eye-catching rumors quickly and do their own stories if warranted. We put stock in the initial Cabaye, Gameiro and Gervinho reports because they were echoed quickly with further detail by other news outlets, as opposed to the Bentley report that never found its way beyond the Mirror, or the Berbatov report, which not only wasn't corroborated, but was refuted today by the same questionable newspaper that ran it yesterday. Also watch that further reports of a rumor aren't merely quoting the original.
Even the most unlikely rumor can occasionally come true. But common sense can sharpen your nose for probable news, no matter where you're reading it. Now if you'll excuse me, I haven't been on Twitter for at least 10 minutes; I'd better catch up with who we're supposed to be getting now.