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Maintaining independence as a sports reporter

December 16, 2010

I recently came across a paper that I wrote last spring about journalism ethics, and thought I would share it. Enjoy.

Journalists must maintain independence from those they cover.  One of the nine key principles of journalism according to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, independence is perhaps the biggest issue that arises on a daily basis in sports reporting.  Certainly, in any aspect of journalism, independence is important and can often be a difficult thing to achieve.  But in covering sports, independence becomes even more challenging.

For one, sporting events typically require long hours to cover.  A professional football or baseball game typically lasts three hours. In college, they typically can be even longer.  When a reporter arrives at least three hours before and remains at least two hours afterward on a regular basis, that makes for a minimum of eight hours a day at the arena, ballpark or stadium.  In any other job, an eight-hour workday comes with a lunch break.  With that in mind, teams typically serve meals before, during or after a game.  Some serve food at all three times.

But how do you deal with any bias that might arise from such food service?  Especially when it is provided free of charge?  Sports franchises are inherently inclusive, as fans that have no connection to the team other than the city or state in which they live — and for some even less — commonly refer to their favorite team in the first person.  As in, “we have no pitching,” or “we really need to win this game tonight.”

While such a mindset is just fine for fans, it is something reporters must avoid at all costs.  Yet, as a sports reporter, one inevitably is also a fan, whether of the team one covers or any other team.  As such, it is important to separate those thoughts and emotions that come along with being a fan from those of working as a reporter.  While a fan might react in anger to their team’s poor play, a journalist should be asking questions:  Why did they play so poorly?  What does this mean for their future?  What do they need to do to improve?  While a reporter can also be a fan, and he or she can have the same feelings of anger, disappointment or joy inside as a fan might, a reporter must put those feelings aside in order to provide an accurate, independent and unbiased depiction of what took place on the field, court or ice.

Over the past two years, I’ve covered a number of events in a number of different sports at various locations.  From women’s basketball to softball, baseball to football, hockey to men’s basketball, nearly all of them included food service.  If they did not provide free food, there usually was free soda or sports drinks.  Being (a) human and (b) a college student, I’ve never once turned down anything free at a sporting event that I’ve covered. Not a single time.  In fact, I’ve never really thought twice about it.  For one, the reporters from bigger, more professional news sources did the same.  So, why should I, a poor college student, being paid little to no salary to be here, refuse such service?  Plus, the food — aside from that served at any Northwestern sporting event — was always excellent.

At Wisconsin football games, I’ve had brats, chicken sandwiches, even prime rib.  When I covered the Badgers at Ohio State, they had free Oreo McFlurry desserts and iced coffee from McDonald’s.  Down in Orlando for the Champs Sports Bowl, they even had a special “hospitality” room at the media hotel that included free drinks of a different variety.  Not wanting to miss out, I stood awkwardly in that room for a few minutes, partaking of such freebies.  But food and drink are not the only things I’ve received free.

Over the summer, I covered the Madison Mallards, where they gave me free tickets since the press box was too small to accommodate me.  Since I had a ticket to each game, I received any and all fan giveaways.  This included, among other things, two free t-shirts, two bobble head dolls, and a stress-relief duck.  At the Champs Sports Bowl, they gave us free hooded sweatshirts.  More recently, in covering Brewers games, I’ve received free notebooks, magnetic schedules and of course, more bobble heads.

Should I have accepted as many freebies over the past two years as I have?  Maybe not.  But while I have accepted such things, I can honestly say it has not influenced my writing one bit.  Because while these teams may be giving me free things, I still recognize that I am not a part of the team, which is perhaps the biggest key to remaining independent.  Whereas fans feel as though they are part of the team, despite the distance between themselves and the players, I recognize that I am not, in spite of the inherent lack of distance between myself and those I cover.  In their book, “The Elements of Journalism,” Kovach and Rosenstiel suggest a similar argument. “One might imagine that one could both report on events and be a participant in them, but the reality is that being a participant both clouds all the other tasks a journalist must perform.  It becomes difficult to see things from other perspectives” (p. 119).  Kovach and Rosenstiel are spot on with this argument.  My position, despite the free food and merchandise I receive, has not resulted in any bias.  However, if I were being paid by the team, or even if I were a member of the team, there is simply no way I could remain entirely unbiased and independent in my reporting.

Since beginning my job at MLB.com, this issue has taken a different turn for me.  When I was at The Badger Herald, I knew we were an independent news source.  In fact, some of my colleagues took such pride in that fact that there was no way I could forget such a fact.  At times, it even seemed to become a crutch, as other Heralders would always fall back on the fact that we did not receive money from the university. This was especially common when comparing the Herald to other college newspapers that won awards we did not.  Yet, as I now work for MLB.com, and as my work is posted on the Brewers’ — or other teams’ — website, there is an inherent loss of independence.  For example, one of the first stories I wrote for the site was altered a bit after I submitted it.  My original version, led with, “After his outing at Miller Park on Saturday, the Brewers may be feeling some buyer’s remorse about Yovani Gallardo’s five-year, $30.1 million extension.”  By no means did I think this was out of line.  Gallardo had, after all, pitched quite poorly just days after receiving a healthy paycheck from the Brewers.  But when it was posted online, it was changed from “may be feeling” to “hope they won’t be feeling.”  Not significant, but in my mind, it changed the meaning of what I had written.  Still, it was close enough that I was OK with it.  Until it changed again the next day, that is.  The final version took out any idea of buyer’s remorse entirely: “Yovani Gallardo would have liked to have a better outing Saturday in his first start since signing a five-year, $30.1 million extension earlier this week.”  When I saw it, my first thought was, “well, yeah.”  Of course Gallardo would have liked a better outing, he lost.

It was at that point that I learned my writing would have to adapt — albeit only slightly — to the fact that it was posted on the Brewers’ team website.  It’s not necessarily something I’m happy about, because in the end, it limits my independence from the Brewers.  In covering the UW Athletic Department, it was my opinion that I could really say whatever I wanted, as long as it was accurate and I had statistics to back it up.  If that meant making the Badgers, or any players and coaches, look bad, so be it.  While I self-censored myself a bit to maintain our ability to cover UW athletics, I knew I could generally write whatever I wish.  Now, I have to limit some of the potential negativity in my writing.  Still, I see the opportunities presented by my job at MLB.com as far outweighing the limited negative aspects of it.

Another, and perhaps more difficult, part of remaining independent from the team I cover and neutral in my reporting, is putting aside my rooting interests.  Until I covered the Atlanta Braves for MLB.com this week, I had never covered a team that I did not want to see win.  As a Wisconsin native and UW-Madison undergraduate, any time I covered a UW sporting event, my heart wanted them to win.  When I covered the Mallards, I had two friends on the team.  Now, as a reporter covering the Brewers, I want them to win as well. If there’s anything I care about more than UW football, basketball and hockey, it’s the Milwaukee Brewers.  However, just because I want them to win, it doesn’t mean I sit up in the press box and cheer them on.  And that’s not just because I would be kicked out of the press box and lose my job for doing so.  Even if I could openly cheer for the teams I cover, I would not do so.  Not while on the job at least.  I still wear Badgers and Brewers gear on off days.  When the teams are on the road and I’m not covering them, I cheer as hard as anyone else.

However, once I put on my credential, take out my notebook and turn on my recorder, all that is pushed aside.  Because when it comes down to it, I am a journalist, and two of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s other key principles of journalism are more important than any rooting interest that I may have. First, as a journalist, my first obligation is to the truth. Secondly, my first loyalty is to the citizens.  In my case as a sports reporter, the truth and loyalty to citizens are not quite as dramatic and important to freedom and self-government as other forms of journalism, but fans still want to know the truth about their favorite teams.  Even when the truth is not necessarily something that they want to hear, fans and readers appreciate having such truth available to them, especially when their favorite teams are struggling.  If the manager is making decisions they don’t agree with, they want an explanation.  When their team’s best player is struggling, they want to hear from him, or the manager about it. So, while I may occasionally feel like I should protect a player that struggles or refrain from shining a negative light on an important mistake — whether to gain their trust or prevent them from criticism — I know that my job is to present the truth to my readers.

No special access to players or rooting interest in the team can change that fact.  Nor can any free food or other merchandise given to me.  While I am a sports fanatic and a fan of the teams I’ve covered and continue to cover, my responsibility as a journalist is not to myself as a fan or to the team that I cover.  First and foremost, I am a journalist and as such, I must remain independent of these teams.  On my own time, I cheer for whatever teams I want, regardless of if I cover them as a journalist or not.


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