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Monday, October 27, 2008
More Discussion on Sports Journalism Ethics

NCAA Champion Magazine's Gary Brown wrote an interesting feature article titled, Truth Be Told?, which highlights the sports journalism ethics problem that I have been writing about extensively over the past several months. Here are some excerpts:

At no time in history have information, analysis and interpretation been so plentiful in sports journalism. In the last 30 years alone, USA Today has printed it, ESPN has televised it, the Web has synthesized it and talk radio has amplified it. While that feeds fans’ frenzy, the information arms race has turned sports reporters into personalities, columnists into entertainers and editors into marketing directors.

Greg Bowers, an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and sports editor of the Columbia Missourian, said sportswriters realized with ESPN’s emergence in the 1980s and the rise of the Internet in the 1990s that merely reviewing what happened on the field of play wasn’t as important since most of the audience already knew the outcome. “The old reason for buying the paper is gone,” he said. “What journalists are trying to do is create a new reason for buying the paper.” That has meant giving readers something unique, and that change has resulted in a bent toward writers offering more inflammatory commentary and becoming more visibly a part of the story – perhaps even crossing a line from reporting to entertaining. “The traditional game story died years ago,” Bowers said. “Offering depth and analysis and telling the behind-the-scenes stories is where sports journalism has gone. Whether it’s the right direction has yet to be determined.”

Does the media environment naturally provoke reaction or is provocation itself the real aim? For some, [Penn State journalism professor Malcolm] Moran said, it’s the latter. “As the environment has become shrill, the only way some people think they can be heard above the din is to be even more shrill,” he said. “Many executives measure a columnist by the number of responses he or she gets. Some columnists are outraged by that premise, but others market themselves as contrarians.”

Whereas at one time sportswriter Dick Young was setting the agenda, now the brash, outrageous talk show host is. “And it’s risky,” Moran said, “because it’s not always journalism, but ratings-driven. The potential for manipulation and exploiting subject matter is a lot greater when you’re looking for ratings points.”

The rapidly changing delivery model of journalism in the 21st Century, the increasing competition among news sources, and the economic pressures and incentives (including the quest for ratings) is killing journalism ethics. As Brown mentions in his article, the essentials of journalism -- fairness, toughness and accuracy -- "are under duress in a time-to-fill environment." However, the First Amendment shield afforded the press in defamation, false light and privacy actions, and developed in an entirely different journalism environment over 40 years ago, provides today's profit-making press with little incentive to be concerned about journalism ethics principles. But arguably, the justification for the constitutional shield is getting weaker in this century as the press increasingly becomes less trustworthy.


"Whereas at one time sportswriter Dick Young was setting the agenda..."

I can't be the only one who is old enough to have read the last 10-15 years of Dick Young columns (To be sure, LONG after he helped a fellow sportswriter by writing an opening sentence for him: "An imperfect man pitched a pefect game," which apparently earned him immortality) and thinks that anyone trying to pretend that there is an ethical decline is selling something.

The difference appears to be that old sports reporters made certain not to report the players's foibles (unless management wanted them reported), so you got people fooled into believing that Garvey, Brett, et al. were paragons, because the owners owned.

When the players start getting a piece of the action, the stories shift.

Don't get me wrong: there are probably more ethics problems now than before; after all, there is more money and more possible sources of money. But holding up Dick Young as some paragon undermines any claims to credibility that ethics have faded, instead of shifted.

Blogger Ken Houghton -- 10/27/2008 8:44 AM  

You know what I really enjoy? Fear mongering, I am pretty sure people said the same thing about TV in the thirties, comic books in the forties and so forth and so on. In all reality this seems like another episode of the “back in my day.” I always find that generally when people say these things; it actually was not like they remember anyway

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/27/2008 6:26 PM  

Let's not forget what the first letter of ESPN stands for -- entertainment.
I think the 'if-it-bleeds-it-leads' mentality, which has long been the philosophy of our television news sources, is rapidly moving into sports journalism. This wouldn't be such a bad thing for informational purposes, but we're talking about kids' heroes and our past role models. And when you find out that your favorite player is actually a gambling, ultra-competitive womanizer, there's a relative sting for all those who loved to watch him play. And that sting reflects onto journalists (I believe the term is muckraker or yellow).
Another point is to what extent these these figures' lives are public (and whether they want them to be). I think there's an investment now in the players -fantasy football - but to what extent should journalists go in reporting the fantasy value of Tom Brady choosing a family doctor?
And finally, in the citizen-journalist world, what differentiates one journalist from others - credibility and ethics.
Cristine Amanpour said: "Trust and credibility are the commodities I trade in."

Anonymous Chris Gilfillan -- 10/27/2008 7:36 PM  

I think the internet/tv has allowed the really good journalists to do things they would have never been able to do before. The internet has caused the best writers to become huge successes and the mediocre writers to lose their jobs. People have a choice now. Back in the day you had probably 4 columnists to choose from in the local paper but now you have 1000s of choices including people that are your friends writing blogs.

Back to ethics. Because the mediocre writers are going to lose their jobs they need to lie, cheat, and steal to get readers. This is where ethics go out the window.

Anonymous Joe M. -- 10/28/2008 7:50 PM  

If it meant sideline reporters who don't add anything to a game having to go away, I'd be all for it.

On the other hand, the ease of internet publishing has led to several instances of unprofessional journalism. By that I mean instances where people who may not have played or truly understand a sport attempt to critique & report on it as if they had played on that level, etc. leading to the instances of "the deaf leading the blind" so to speak.

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