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Sports journalism has some explaining to do.
Today, the sports and journalism worlds are collectively wringing their hands about he discovery that the made-for-TV story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his dead girlfriend was actually too good to be true. The girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who has allegedly died of leukemia back in September, didn’t exist. Numerous sports reporters from the local South Bend Tribune to ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press, all helped spread the story of this lie. They are implicit in the hoax for their role in spreading a false story without the basics of verification.
Sports reporters work in the nexus of journalism, entertainment and big-time moneymaking – and when the latter two are the focus of network executives and publishers, the first sometimes takes a vacation. We need to re-examine the journalism in sports journalism.
Sports reporters are great at breaking down the games and scenarios. They generally do a fine job of pursuing the story when an athlete or team has committed some sort of wrongdoing or has some important story to tell. In the case of the dead girlfriend, however, sports reporters and their editors and all supporting staff who let these stories go to the web, print or air, let themselves get caught up in the irresistible pull of the heartwarming narrative.
Nobody out of all this coverage did any research on Kekua. Out of all of these reporters and organizations, they went only on the word of a young football player to repeatedly tell the story that would ultimately help propel Te’o into a national spotlight (and the Heisman considerations). In their minds at the time, I’m sure the thought process was something like, “Why bother? It’s just a feel-good footnote on the larger story of this amazing athlete. Why bother?”
There were several inconsistencies across the range of reporting on the love story – notably as to when Kekua died. How did nobody notice the difference when writing their own stories? As my colleague Steve Buttry notes, even looking for a link to an obituary for Kekua, which should have been standard procedure, would have started to unravel the story. Instead it took several months and a great investigation by Deadspin to reveal the not-all-that-well-thought-out hoax.
This case is just the latest example among many that indicate to me that the soul of the sports journalism profession is in jeopardy.
In 2011, a young crime reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Penn. wrote an explosive story about a grand jury investigation of retired Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of at least two young boys. The paper took hits from its readers and the story went largely ignored by the news organizations and reporters covering the team and the university. It took seven months and Sandusky’s eventual arrest in the sex abuse case that finally led the national and sports media world to follow up on the story. The reporter, Sara Ganim, won a Pulitzer. ESPN, Sports Illustrated and every sports reporter on the beat at Penn State should have had some explaining to do about that gap in time…but nothing came of it.
A Poynter Review of the situation at ESPN stated, “With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed light on this scandal.” It explained the missteps in how the story was handled in tone and breadth, but it did not address the delay of seven months.
Why didn’t they follow up on what is arguably the biggest story ever on the beat? Easy. They wanted to keep that access to the very popular team and to its then-coach, Joe Paterno, open. Editors, publishers and network suits wanted to keep that cash cow that is Penn State football news producing milk. So everyone got along to get along and hoped nobody would notice.
And we can’t forget how ESPN, arguably the biggest fish in sports media, has stepped out of the bounds of journalism ethics to shape its sports “news” for financial reasons. In 2010, the network produced and aired what was essentially an infomercial for LeBron James to trumpet his decision to move to the Miami Heat, sending a lot of “tsk, tsks” across the journalism spectrum. Throughout 2011 and 2012, ESPN took a more hands-on approach to shaping sports news by deciding, with ratings purposes in mind, to hitch its wagon to the popularity of Tim Tebow. They used their news reporters to create an inordinate amount of coverage on Tebow, even though he wasn’t even starting in the NFL for the 2012 season.
So how can it be fixed?
Of course, the obvious has to be stated. We can’t paint all sports reporters or sports news organizations with a broad brush, but there is a problem to be solved here. How can we ensure our sports coverage consistently retains its objectivity and avoids falling into fanboyism or fraternity with the sources on the other side of the beat?
I had a great conversation about this with my friends on Facebook last night and some of them had great suggestions as to how sports editors and reporters can keep their heads on straight.
How about we start when we are grooming sports reporters in journalism schools and on the beat within news organizations?
Margaret McGurk, a former coworker of mine from The Cincinnati Enquirer, suggested, “Sports editors need to stop hiring reporters who have never worked a police beat or covered a courthouse or dealt with the non-sports world as a journalist.”
My former boss at The Cincinnati Enquirer, Chris Graves. A former crime reporter, she noted that reporters operating within a niche like sports need to have a focus on the fundamentals.
“All reporters are reporters first — niche reporting (be it sports, business or entertainment) comes later,” she said.
Journalism schools and editors grooming young reporters for their dream jobs of covering sports need to put learning journalism first and sports second. Sure, the young reporter will balk at being told he needs to cover cops or courts or city council to make his way to press row at a basketball game, but he will be a better journalist for it.
And it doesn’t stop at the beginning. Veteran sports reporters should be encouraged to spend their off-seasons on sabbatical, of sorts, flexing their muscles in other realms of news. It’s not to say they need to pick up a whole other beat for months on end, but they can take the time to refresh their journalism skills – calling unfamiliar sources, crunching their own numbers, maybe learning a new tool or two. They shouldn’t be kept immune from the rigors of reporting.
“This was among my biggest pet peeves when I was a cops reporter,” Graves said. “The amount of checking and record pulling it was simply assumed I would do for sports or entertainment reporters…”
I’m sure sports reporters, including some of my friends, would roll their eyes at this suggestion. That’s fine, but the crux of all of this is that the Te’o case, among others in months past, is a good opportunity to have a real conversation about ethics in sports reporting. Let’s not let it sit.