I’ve heard it said before by someone who does this sort of thing for a living that the near-exclusive use of unnamed sources in sports reporting isn’t a problem. Why? Well, because, you know, it’s sports. We all love it, but it’s not war, famine, or politics. It’s transfer or trade rumors, injury stories, bland player testimonies. Who cares if the standards of journalism are a little sloppier? No harm, no foul. And if we make a mistake, no biggie!
This was the view from several established UK journalists in light of revelations that the Times had retracted a story on the utterly non-existent Dream Football League in Qatar. Here’s a perhaps non-representative example:
Can’t why times sport should have to “apologise”. Nobody’s been hurt. Is just a mistake. You’d have to actually choose to be upset about it
— Barney Ronay (@barneyronay) March 18, 2013
And we take their point. But if they’re right and it’s all just silly, it raises the question: why are newspapers wasting money on this giant clan of employees who exist simply to tell us information slightly before the clubs send out an official release (or not)? Why not just keep the ones who tell us something interesting and verified or who are simply very good writers, and shuffle the rest out the door? They could save the industry!
In all seriousness, this view was the subject of a recent piece highlighted by Roger Pielke Jr. last week in response to the DFL debacle at the Times. Pielke quotes from Professor David Rowe at the University of Western Sydney, who wrote a post on Play the Game that asked “What is Sports Journalism for?” Rowe writes:
Sports journalists, it’s fair to say, do not have elevated reputations among (also much-disparaged) fellow reporters on other rounds. That attitude might stem from professional jealousy of the “nice work if you can get it” kind, and also because sport tends to be patronised as “just” popular culture. Nonetheless, sports journalists have found it hard to shake their unfavourable image as middle-aged men billowing smoke and swilling beer, as star-struck sport wannabes playing at being serious scribes.
Many sports journalists themselves take this view. You either scoop or get scooped, and the notion of secondary confirmations, running background checks on unnamed sources, checking possible motives for a source to speak off the record is to be left to the newsdesk.
Pielke’s own view is that this is bad for the genre because, inevitably, sports journalists have to write about things that are important. “After all,” he warns, “if journalists can’t be trusted to take care of their own profession, how can they be trusted to look into match fixing, doping and broad failures of governance in sport?”
But to me there’s also a question of quality. Not in terms of whether the report is accurate, but whether it’s interesting. Take for example the mad clamor to be the first journalist to get out a story that X player is going to Y club. Look! You did it! You got it right! And then a few hours later, there’s an official press release. Ta da.
What value does this add? Well, monetary value for the sports journalist. You do that well enough and often enough and you’ll rack up the page views, you’ll get the RTs, and baby, you’ll really be somebody. If you work for a newspaper, you’ll keep your job maybe.
But…who cares? Practically speaking, whose interest does this serve beyond your editor, a few eager fans, your own ego, and the the interests of the unnamed party who blithely releases this information to you, for what you assume is “no reason?” And if this the only kind of reporting/writing you’re doing, what are you other than a glorified wire service for mid-level club lackies who don’t care about respecting their press office over the timing of a press release? Is that really the height of sports journalism?
Of course it isn’t, and most involved know it. But if one paper pulls out of this sort of thing, they lose the page views/subscriptions. There’s no incentive to pull out of the race to the bottom.
But that race has had some terrible knock-on effects. What happens when someone wants to ask a difficult but important question from a club or governing body? “This is off the record,” followed by a non-denial denial. If journalists will accept off the record responses on something as innocuous as a player transfer, why are clubs going to answer your question openly about whether their scout offered a family money for a signature that never materialized? Or whether the club forced players to sign with a particular agent before signing?
Moreover, it creates a bad precedent. If you’re used to just running something on a good contact that has given you good information before, what’s to stop you from doing it on something bigger? More important? Like a foreign football league idea?
There’s another other great thing however that might happen if journalists refused to use unnamed sources unless absolutely necessary, and, if it is necessary, getting secondary confirmation—we might never see these stupid transfer or trade rumours again until the club officially announces them. The great army of chancers that make up the UK press corps, a group not always known for their rigorous standards in accuracy and balance, will either improve or diminish.
They might write fewer stories about big bad Qatar stealing English clubs, and more about the many press releases from human rights groups over the failure of Qatar to improve its treatment of migrant laborers ahead of the World Cup. They might emulate writers like James Dorsey, who without the backing of a major media organization, risked being forced to release a source for an affidavit that implicated one-time FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed Bin Hammam in a major bribery scandal.
I am a firm believer that the sports journalism profession still features a wealth of talent. But I think the daily grind of the scoop wars is dragging the whole edifice down, setting a sloppy standard and sometimes preventing the whole truth from reaching the surface…
This post originally included a tweet embed from Marina Hyde not in reference to the DFL story. Richard Whittall regrets the error (irony!)