In PR and in journalistic circles, we used to think that in order for secrets or scandals to become news, you needed a trained journalist with dogged persistence and good contacts. Still the case, but the Washington Posts of the world no longer have a monopoly on uncovering stories some would prefer never came to light.
Not too long ago, the tabloids took up the investigative mantle, pursuing outrageous stories some of which happened to be true. The cycle for a time was, the traditional media would let the tabloids chase down leads and dead ends, and when a story every now and then gained traction, the mainstream media would pick it up a few weeks or months later.
The best example of this was when the National Enquirer took ownership of the story about former presidential candidate John Edwards and his affair with a staffer. Apparently there were plenty of signs and talk about the possible affair in the news media ranks, but no one wanted to take the lead and do the story until the Enquirer did.
Just a few years later, all of this print media muckraking seems so dated it may as well be the stuff of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.
Enter social media and smart phone technology. Now, scandals can be uncovered by someone as innocuous as a football fan with an iPhone. The process is simple: shoot and post. Or if you don’t have a photo but some juicy info, the process is even simpler: post. Depending on the nature of the content and where you post it, the world will know in minutes.
So here’s what happened. The married head coach of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks was out for a spin on his motorcycle. He crashed. The police were called, a report was filed. Petrino did what any highly visible coach would do - he told the university’s athletic director what happened. However, he left out one important detail. His passenger on the motorcycle was a former female volley ball player at the school, a new hire of his, and their relationship was more than professional.
This put the school in a bad position. It had put out a statement based on the incomplete information the coach had originally provided, and then only learned the full story when the official police report was about to be filed and made public.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long had to make the tough decisions. To appreciate just how tough, you might have to spend some time in Arkansas, but in short, they have no professional athletic teams to call their own. They have one major university, and football is king. Petrino has built a football program in the most elite college conference in the nation that is now a prime contender for a national championship. Winning a national championship for Arkansas is a matter of state pride that runs so deep the issue is one of regional identity.
You may not like football, but Petrino’s importance is not about football. What he’s done for the school, the state and the Razorback brand is hard to fathom here in Pennsylvania. And he’s done it all just by winning most of his football games.
For some in Arkansas, the firing of Petrino is a modern day tragedy. For others it’s sweet justice. And it all started with a social media posting.
The Web site was woopig.net, the “unofficial site for fans of the Arkansas Razorbacks.” The “investigative” correspondent in this case is a fan who uses the handle Hoggrad. Hoggrad was the one to first reveal on that site that the story of the motorcycle accident may have more to it than a few bumps and bruises from the crash.
That post set off a frenzy of social media debate that put pressure on the university to respond and take decisive action. At the end, Petrino is out of work, the future of the football program is in limbo, and Arkansas pride has taken a blow.
With the dawn of social media, investigative journalism may have recently morphed into something entirely new, “investigative social media,” where everyone’s a reporter, and like the clock at a Razorback football game, time is primarily measured in seconds.