Occasionally I like to highlight recent interesting research into journalism because, frankly, academic researchers do a poor job of delivering findings in understandable and widespread form to the practitioners who would benefit from them.
Sports fans, do you know what rare event occurs this week, beginning tonight? It’s the only week of the year when all four major U.S. professional sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL) are scheduled to play. Not to mention college football, in case any of you happen to be interested in that. So you’ll have a lot of choices for watching live sports this week, just as you (always) have a lot of choices in where to get your sports news.
For coverage that goes beyond live action and results, you can turn to traditional, daily local news organizations or to newer, digital-only outlets such as The Athletic that emphasize long-form enterprise angles. There are also fan blogs but they usually just riff on other media reports. Another source has emerged in the past two decades: Websites published by leagues and teams themselves. But think for a moment. Do you really want to depend on an outlet that’s satisfied to report only the obvious daily news and that won’t report negative off-field news unless it’s already public? Well, actually, the answer is maybe.
Seeking professional competence and an image of legitimacy, these websites are increasingly hiring former journalists (and sadly there are many in the job market). Based on interviews with 24 of these in-house reporters working for either pro teams or major-college athletic departments, researcher Michael Mirer of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Media Ethics ($) that these reporters still consider themselves journalists who follow customary journalistic practices.
They say they publish only truthful stories, and argue that their predominantly factual presentations are superior to a lot of today’s sports journalism that prefers attention-getting hot takes over factual reporting. They criticize the publication of errors and rumors by independent sports writers. They believe they bring more “civility” to sports reporting.
But Mirer cites inevitable departures from best practices. In-house writers report news only when their team or league is ready for publication. Their scope of news is limited to happenings of the team, not any related community or social issues that might arise. They present negative performance not with their own analysis but by citing statistics and letting coaches provide the analysis. “In-house reporters do engage in a public relations function,” Mirer writes. Ideal sports journalism this isn’t.
The researcher, though, concludes with a surprising suggestion for independent sports reporters. He argues that independent reporters can’t match the access and therefore the effectiveness of in-house writers in presenting the basic, daily news of the team. So he suggests that independent reporters should play a distinctive and necessary role that in-house reporters never will, which is to concentrate on “more socially aware sports journalism.”
While standard stories may remain part of the repertoire, Mirer advocates to prioritize attention to how a sports team affects a community, and how sports inevitability reflect and raise the endless social issues of today. He writes: “Independent sports journalism should view sports as the civic, cultural and economic institutions they are. It should examine the way events within athletics dramatize key social issues or serve as an entry point to societal-level discussions on issues of race, gender, crime, domestic violence, childhood development community investment, economics and others.”
Today’s sports media do more of that kind of work than ever before. But more is needed, and it would get an audience if done well. Personally, though, I have no interest in leaving any part of my sports news to team websites, no matter how those writers view and execute their role. The potential issues with the credibility and integrity of the information are just too troubling.