After seeing LeBron James' recent spate of social media activity create a nearly weeklong news cycle, the question needs to be asked: What is the proper way to cover a "story" like this?
I put that word in quotation marks because sometimes when an athlete tweets or posts an Instagram photo, there is backlash from readers when a mainstream media outlet chooses to give it attention.
The common critiques range from, "It's just a tweet, stop reading so much into it," to, "You call that journalism? Don't you have anything better to write about?"
It's somewhat unprecedented ground. There are no rules in place for how media members are supposed to cover it. A beat writer's job is to know everything that's going on with the beat he or she covers and present that to readers. Key word: everything. The idea of something being "just a tweet" is sorely antiquated. (Side note: The term "beat writer" is also antiquated. We all disseminate our info on radio, TV, podcasts and, you guessed it, social media now, too, so "beat reporter" is far more accurate.)
The fact is, James, with a combined following of more than 47 million on Twitter and Instagram, has more of a reach when he uses social media than when he plays at the pinnacle of his sport, as demonstrated by last season's NBA Finals averaging just less than 20 million viewers per game.
The 11 essential elements of news value, according to the book "Writing and Reporting the News" by Gerald Lanson and Mitchell Stephens, are impact, weight, controversy, emotion, the unusual, prominence, proximity, timeliness, currency, usefulness and educational.
James' social media binge easily checks off four of those tenets -- controversy, the unusual, prominence and timeliness -- if not more.
He tweeted a message that seemed to be referring to his longtime friend and former Heat teammate, Dwyane Wade.
Can't replace being around great friends that reciprocate the same energy back to you in all facets of life
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 3, 2016
And there was the series of tweets James sent on March 1 in which he expressed frustration with someone in his life who made a mistake.
It's ok to know you've made a mistake. Cause we all do at times. Just be ready to live with whatever that comes with it and be with.....
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 1, 2016
those who will protect you at all cost!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 1, 2016
While it was unmistakably newsworthy to try to give some context to the tweets (we asked James about them twice, here and here) it also opened Pandora's box. Or, at the very least, Pandora's TweetDeck.
Once the story is acknowledged, what's the proper follow-up?
James' tweets garnered disproportionate attention mostly because we're a curious people who listen to "Serial" and binge watch "Making a Murderer" and have a desire to decode.
Even though James went on the record to say his tweets didn't have anything to do with the Cleveland Cavaliers, there were still skeptics. When Kyrie Irving posted a vague tweet of his own, suddenly it was subtweet sabotage. Or was it?
"I don't really check Twitter for people's comments or what they're saying or anything like that," Irving told ESPN.com. "I didn't think it was directed toward me at all. I know everybody made a big deal about it and then I tweet and then all of the sudden it's a subtle beef between me and Bron. No, I don't think Bron tweets for me and I don't think I tweet for LeBron."
Timing is everything in life, and James' tweet-a-tat-tat came at a time when the Cavs lost three of four games, were turned down by Joe Johnson in their pursuit of him, remarks were made by ESPN's Stephen A. Smith about Irving's unhappiness and later about James' prerogative to skip town once again if he starts to feel taken for granted. Then there was an anonymous scout skewering the lack of on-court chemistry between Irving and James in a report by The Vertical's Chris Mannix, and it was all punctuated by James taking a trip down to Miami when Cleveland had a two-day break in the schedule after the slump and yucking it up with Wade.
For someone on the outside looking for a problem in Cleveland, even hoping for one, the tweets were a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. But what about for the Cavs? How did they view it?
One of James' teammates told me he didn't even know about James' social media blitz until he was asked about it.
"I have my own ecosystem," he said.
While the player understood the buzz it created, and even said an episode like this was "good for the sport," because James is able to bring so many eyeballs to basketball with every move he makes, he scoffed at their ultimate significance.
"Why would I pay extra attention to one tweet when I already heard 20 quotes from him in person from conversations that day?" he said.
Another member of the organization posited that James, ever since an unstable childhood, has always thrived in chaos, so this was just his way of stirring the pot a bit to add some intrigue to a stretch of the schedule that can sometimes become tedious before players naturally start to feel the adrenaline from the upcoming playoffs.
And yet another explanation floated my way is that James feels like he cares more than the rest of the team does and his tweets were a way of testing everyone else's desire. The thing about it is, for as passive-aggressive as it was portrayed, James actually responds well to being held accountable by others. If a teammate was to check him on it, it would probably help the team in the long run because it would show that they were invested and not just there to follow.
I had my opinions and theories about it all, too. I found the tweets to be innocuous at best, unnecessary at worst. Certainly not a sign of collapsing chemistry, though. But as a beat reporter, it's not my job to center my coverage on my opinion. It is my job to try to give fans of a team content that actually matters, to steer the conversation toward the truth found in nuance and balanced perspective, rather than feeding on the emotions and click bait stirred up by bombastic black-and-white claims.
Now that James' tweet-driven news cycle has thankfully been put to bed and we can look back at it, did it end up having any effect on the team in terms of creating tension?
"No, no, no, not at all," Irving said. "If it did, I think I would have said something."
Wait, Irving only thinks he would have said something? He doesn't know he would? What does that say about his leadership ability? Go for it, speculation society, there's another news cycle to be had.