A while back, I was at an academic conference where I was presenting one of my research papers. I got talking to a professor from another school about my work and about my future plans. I told him that, for my dissertation, I was considering doing some work involving sports reporters.
The look on his face suggested I had just killed his cat.
Why would you do that, he asked? Why would I waste my time studying something like sports?
That attitude is widespread both in journalism, and in the study of journalism. News is the real thing, the important part of the paper, the people’s watchdog, the fourth estate. The sports department is the toy department, the fan boys covering inconsequential games.
I get it. Nobody would argue that sports is more important than news. Well-done news journalism can change the world and bring to light governmental malfeasance. But there is a place for sports journalism. Well-done sports journalism can be every bit as meaningful to readers as well-done news journalism.
That’s one of the reasons the Manti Te’o story angered me so much. I was afraid that the stories that were proven to be false last week did nothing but feed the perception that sports journalists are not to be taken seriously. And judging by some of the posts online and in social media – including one professor who wrote that sports “journalism” should always be in quote marks – my fears are coming true. The Te’o story has brought out all the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou journalists and journalism watchers claiming that sports journalism “faces a moment of truth” and that sports journalism is going to change, for better or worse.
To the sanctimonious in the crowd, I say: Shut up.
Actually, let me let Charles Pierce say it for me:
As someone who’s working both sides of the aisle at the moment, there is something up with which I will not put, and that is snarky comments from the elite political press about what suckers the people who write for The Toy Department are. Knock it off, foofs. Careers are made in the courtier press by doing deliberately what probably may have happened by slovenly accident in the case of the sportswriters who passed along this tale of highly marketable pathos. What is the significant difference between the actual reality of Manti Te’o's dead imaginary girlfriend and the actual reality George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford?
To which, I would start chanting “Judith Miller! (Clap clap clap-clap-clap). Judith Miller! (Clap clap clap-clap-clap).”
See, the Te’o story (along with the Lance Armstrong story, and all the other ones that show the problems with sports journalism) are actually problems of journalism. What this story, and the others, reveal is how dependent on sources journalists are. So many times, journalists trust what a person tells them above everything else. We value human relationships, our access, our connections. And these are, of course, valuable. But one of the side-effects of this is that we become totally dependent on our access, connections and relationships. We can be blinded by them. Check out Rick Reilly’s column about Lance Armstrong. Reilly had been one of Armstrong’s biggest defenders for years, even as the evidence mounted that Armstrong used PEDs.
Why? Because Armstrong always told me he was clean. On the record. Off the record. Every kind of record. In Colorado. In Texas. In France. On team buses. In cars. On cell phones.
When it came to evidence vs. a source’s word, he picked a source’s word.
This happens all the time, at all levels of journalism. It is not at all a problem with sports journalism. It’s not a symptom of star-struck sports reporters who wish they were athletes and are still looking up to their favorite players. It’s a problem for all journalists. It’s a problem when we report what a source says without double-checking it or fact checking it, and then passing it off as simply “that’s what I was told. That’s what they said. What can I do?” That’s the View from Nowhere. What the reporter can, and should, do is write down what people say and if what people say includes a fact that can be independently verified, the journalists should do that. Simple.
That’s what the sports press didn’t do in the Te’o story. As has been written, here and elsewhere, reporters seemed to fall in love with the narrative and, faced with a great story and the time constraints of modern news media, didn’t do the proper fact checking. It was a grave journalism sin.
But in the end, it was just a football player claiming to have a girlfriend.
It’s not like the reporting helped lead our country into war or anything.
Maybe being “just sports” isn’t such a bad thing.