The LeBron James story is the future of sports journalism

“Journalism-as-process” is here, for good or for bad, and whether you like it or not

SANDOMIR-master675It’s going on nearly two weeks now since LeBron James announced he was returning to Cleveland.

So who broke the story?

Well, Chris Sheridan was the first journalist to report that James was going back to Cleveland, reporting it on his website. But Lee Jenkins and Sports Illustrated had the actual story, “written” by James and posted online. Continue reading

Manti Te'o blarney

Manti Te’o and the worst (and best) in sports journalism

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 8.24.27 PMThe ridiculous Manti Te’o story that Deadspin broke today represents the best, and the worst, in sports journalism.

We’ll get to the worst in a bit here – and there is plenty to say about the worst – but let’s talk about the best. The reporting job that Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey did with this story is utterly sensational. It’s among the finest pieces of sports journalism I’ve ever seen. Look at how they reported this story. Look at the work they did, discovering the fact that the photos of Te’o’s girlfriend were actually those of another young woman, the discovery of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and his alleged role in the fraud. Hell, just read these graphs:

Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.

Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.

That is reporting. That’s the kind of fact-finding, discovery and writing you want to see in the media. This isn’t a story graded on a curve because it’s Gawker. It’s better than almost anything you’ll see on any media site – mainstream or alternative.


And now for the worst …

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. This story is an embarrassment to sports journalism. The fact that one of the highest-profile players on the highest-profile college football team in the country carried out this hoax to some degree* for an entire season, and nobody sniffed out anything about it, is embarrassing. It feeds the worst perceptions of sports journalism – that we’re all fanboys and fangirls, looking to tell cute little stories about games and that we’re not real reporters.

These are points that will be widely made in the next few days, and they’re worthwhile ones. One of the core parts of a reporter’s job is to verify facts. It’s to take what they are told by sources and try to independently verify them. Facts matter, even in a heartwarming feature story. A reporter should never take what he or she is told at face value. You know the old saying “If a story sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? Reporters need to live by that. The fact that nobody tried to verify the facts in this story is stunning.

(And, as a reporter, I can say I was not always very good at this. I was not a model reporter by any account. So yes, this is Monday Morning Quarterbacking to some degree.)

Here’s the thing: Verifying facts doesn’t necessarily mean being confrontational. It doesn’t mean asking Te’o “Yeah, I want to make sure your grandma and girlfriend really died.” Because yeah, you’d look like a terrible person if you did that. It also doesn’t mean harboring doubts about what you’re being told. It’s doing your diligence. If you’re doing a feature story about a player who’s inspiration is his dying girlfriend, it seems obvious that you’d want her voice in the story somehow. That would mean trying to find out about her. What was she like? What happened to her? Maybe you call Stanford, where she went to school. Maybe you request the police report for the accident, which is public record. The player said her family wants privacy. Which is fine and understandable. But one of the things I always tried to do as a journalist was this: If someone didn’t want to talk to me, fine. But they had to tell me no comment. Not someone on their behalf.

This is where it gets interesting. If you’re a reporter, and you start to see questions arise – not doubts, but just questions like “Huh, I can’t find her online at all aside from this one little profile … and there’s no accident report? … and I can’t talk to the family because they want privacy … huh … this is … odd.” What do you do? When you’ve got deadline’s coming, you’ve got three beats to cover and your editor is houding you for the story … what do you do?

I don’t have a good answer to this question. I’d love to hear if you do (honestly).

This was a failure of process. It was a massive failure of reporters, who appear to have fallen in love with the story (which is so easy to do) and told what sounded like a perfect story. It was a failure of editors, who are supposed to protect against this. A good editor is a complete pain in the ass, a person who questions every detail in your story. The fact that no editor raised any questions about this at any outlet is just as much a failure as that of the reporters.

This is the story that makes sports journalists look terrible, like caretakers of the toy department. It feeds every negative stereotype of sports writers and sports journalism.

And yet, the work of Deadspin’s reporters also showed that, when done right, sports journalism can be just as serious, deep and good as any reporting in any other section.

Brian Moritz spent 10 years as a sports reporter before returning to the safety of academia, where he’s a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University. He blogs at Sports Media Guy, where this post first appeared.

Playing with pain: RGIII and the challenge of The Sport Ethic

Robert Griffin III

It’s not often you get to see one of your research interests play out in real-time. But last night, during the Seahawks-Redskins playoff game, we saw The Sport Ethic clearly illustrated.

Quick refresher: The Sport Ethic is a concept from sports sociology (Hughes & Coakely, 1991) in which they found four traits that elite athletes believe. One of them is accepting risks and playing through pain. The point of The Sport Ethic is that elite athletes are so dedicated to it, believing in it with an almost religious intensity, that it leads to what the sociologists call Deviant Overconformity. They conform so much to this ethic that it leads them to deviant behavior. Like using performance-enhancing drugs. Like eliminating everything from their lives that doesn’t revolve around sports.

Like playing while injured.

“I’d probably been right back out there on the field. You respect authority and I respect coach Shanahan but at the same time you have to step up and be a man sometimes.There was no way I was coming out of the game,” Griffin said. “It’s an awkward conversation you never want to have with a head coach. You don’t want him to ever feel like you’re lying to him. I wasn’t lying to him, I was able to play. Period. If he would have pulled me out, I would have been highly upset but that’s his prerogative. He kept me in.” – Robert Griffin III, Sunday night (quote courtesy Pro Football Talk).

One of the things that interests me is how the sports media portrays and reinforces The Sport Ethic as normal, desirable behavior. I’ve only done one pilot study so far, but what that study suggested is that the media reflect the Sport Ethic mainly by giving it a voice. The Sport Ethic is primarily reflected in quotes from players and coaches, rather than in the coverage itself (subject to change with future research).

But think about this: Think about what the coverage would have been like had RGIII stayed in the game and the Redskins had won?

Would the coverage have been as critical for allowing an injured player to continue?

Or would he be lionized for playing through pain, playing while injured, putting his team ahead of himself?

What Griffin’s quote from after the game shows (and what Dan Wetzel so brilliantly points out) is how deeply RGIII has apparently accepted The Sport Ethic as a part of his life.

It also shows, to me, one of the big challenges facing sports in 2013. The culture around sports is changing, with more attention being paid to the long-term physical toll sports like football and hockey are taking on players. Look no further than the concussion debate. Player safety is important. But one of the challenges facing it is the fact that the culture of sports is at odds with a culture of playing safety.

Mike Silver raised this point in his Yahoo column today:

“Before you rail against Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for allowing Griffin to play through obvious knee discomfort and exposing him to a potentially serious injury, ask yourself how you reacted when Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler left the 2010 NFC championship game with what turned out to be a torn medial collateral ligament. Did you question Cutler’s toughness? Did you feel like he let down his teammates in that home defeat to the Packers? Did you laud him for being honest with coach Lovie Smith about his condition, for realizing that playing hurt might negatively impact his team’s chances, and for not putting the Bears’ team doctors in a potentially compromising position? Think about the answers to these questions, and then decide how you feel about RG3 and the Battle of Wounded Knee.”

What was interesting about the Cutler story last year was the fact that it was fellow players who started the issue by criticizing the QB on Twitter. That’s how deep the Sport Ethic runs in the sports culture. And trying to change a culture that is so ingrained and pervasive is not easy.

And when reporters value players’ opinions because they are the experts in their field (journalism routines’ research has consistently shown that the media favor official sources because of their perceived expertise), that culture will continue to be reflected in sports media.

Which makes the debate over player safety all the more challenging.

Brian Moritz is a doctoral student at Syracuse University and blogs at Sports Media Guy, where this post first appeared.

Why I left newspapers

It was early in baseball season — May 2006, I think. My first year covering the Double-A Binghamton Mets. A little bit before the game started, I got an IM from my girlfriend (now wife) with a video clip of her niece (now my niece) performing in a dance recital.

As the grounds crew watered the infield and the crowd started to file into the stadium, I watched my niece dance. And mixed in with pride was a wave of sadness.

Would this be how I connected with my daughter some day? Would I be watching her dance recitals on a laptop in the press box rather than from the front row?

Three years ago, I walked out of the Press & Sun-Bulletin‘s newsroom for the last time, ending my career as a sports writer. Continue reading

'The most irresponsible act of alleged journalism I've seen on Twitter'

When I was in journalism school back in the 1990s, there was a formula we learned that defined the reporting process: Gather, sort, report. We were taught to first gather all the information we needed for a story, then sort it (organize it, structure it, etc.), and then write the story or go on the air.

One of the main ways journalism is changing in the digital age, especially with Twitter, is what’s called “news as process.” Rather than building a reporters’ work around one story, a reporter’s work is structured around publishing the story piecemeal, as it happens. The process is the story. One way of looking at it is that it turns around the formula I learned 15 years ago. It’s not gather, sort, report. It’s gather, report, sort. You get information, you report what you hear, and then you sort it into a story, either for print or to post online. Continue reading

A question for every reporter: Why are you there?

Professor Jeff Jarvis wrote a marvelous post recently questioning why reporters were in Tampa covering the Republican National Convention. The point was: What work are reporters doing there that justifies the expense of sending them there rather than using that money elsewhere in the newsroom?

“We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN …Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year. So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?” Continue reading