On the Media: What Is a Sports Reporter?

Sports reporters are frequently criticized. But I don’t think their job is well understood. The media is often blamed for many of the ills in society, from the ever-expanding celebrity culture to the increasing loss of civility in the public sphere, to the preponderance of incorrect or misunderstood stories in the news. They often deserve that criticism. But I think they’re held to an unreasonable standard, because, in my view, sports reporters have a nearly impossible job. So, today, I’d like to try to define what sports journalism is, what it is not, and what it should be.

Why is it nearly impossible? Sports reporters are expected to report on the private business strategy of a monopoly corporation: this requires that they maintain a good enough relationship with the corporation that their access is not revoked, while maintaining both access and credibility. While political reporters have recourse to the legal system and the Freedom of Information Act if government officials decide to stonewall the media, sports reporters have no such luxury. And employees of the corporation, from executives to athletes, are instructed to say nothing of substance on the record. (Except for Ozzie Guillen.) Much of what we know about the inner life of the clubhouse and the front office comes from officially sanctioned leaking, anonymous sources, and tabloid and checkbook journalism from sites like Deadspin.

Today, Dave Gershman at Beyond the Box Score tried to quantify one element of being a baseball reporter: getting a scoop about a deal. Soon thereafter, Tom Tango pointed out that the number is meaningless without noting how many scoops that reporter has blown. I agree with Tango’s point, but I think it obscures the larger issue: a reporter doesn’t deserve exclusive credit for getting a scoop. In part, credit for the scoop belongs to the reporter’s ability to cultivate a network of reliable sources, and, in part, credit for the scoop belongs to the people in the know who decide to give the story to that reporter.

Many leaks are intentional, and many reporters are used as tools by their sources, who refuse to go on the record but nonetheless want to get their stories in print. This is the source of the media criticism that a reporter should be more than just a stenographer. But, because there’s no Freedom of Information Act in sports, the sources have all the leverage. The only leverage a reporter can have over a source is to possess another source who makes the first one irrelevant.

The trouble with needing access is that it makes a reporter beholden to the subjects of the reportage; if they don’t like what is written, they can revoke access. That’s why Deadspin’s motto is “Sports News Without Access, Favor, or Discretion” — lacking access, they didn’t need to cultivate favor, and therefore could afford to eschew discretion. Although he’s basically an insider now, able to interview the NBA Commissioner on his podcast, Bill Simmons has very successfully cultivated the image of an outsider: because he doesn’t have to sit in the clubhouse to listen to naked men utter boring platitudes about “one game at a time,” he can speak his mind about sports without needing to worry about hurting those men’s feelings. The need for access hamstrings much of what a journalist would like to do. But a lack of access makes news confirmation impossible.

I don’t consider myself a journalist; I’m a blogger. Still, I write for pay, which makes me a member of the media, and I used to work for The Washington Post, so I’m sensitive to media criticism. Much of that criticism is unfounded, such as when sports figures disingenuously and hypocritically blast reporters for “lying” in stories based on things that they themselves said to the reporter, off the record. Other criticism is well-founded, and the site FireJoeMorgan.com made a beautiful career out of poking holes in the baseless arguments of old-fashioned columnists. As Bill James has written:

Americans 50 and 60 years ago accepted the power of myth as a given. Old baseball books are full of stories which are at best undocumented and are, for the most part, transparent fabrications created in support of a myth….

In the modern world we are less tolerant. We have vastly better resources now to distinguish between true accounts and fictional stories, and, because we do, we expect what is printed to meet the standards of the truth.

When sportswriters cling to myth to the exclusion of truth, they are rightly criticized. However, when they publish intentional leaks as scoops, they are playing into the hands of their sources, but they’re also informing their public. If a sportswriter were expected to verify every story with two on-the-record sources, sports sections would be blank except for box scores. Bad reporting is a shame, but it’s inevitable: forced to contend with a monopoly organization that legally owns all of the information that others might consider news, and that frequently lies about that information, reporters have to scrounge through a great deal of noise to uncover a few nuggets of fact.

There would probably be a lot fewer bad stories if fewer stories were written. Rumors are almost always wrong, obviously. But the toothpaste is out of the tube. The 24-hour news cycle, blogosphere, and Twitterverse have created such an insatiable hunger for content that virtually anything that can be written, will be written. So all they can do is try to get it right, and all we can do is have a little appreciation for just how hard a job it truly can be. And, of course, criticize them mercilessly if they ever argue that Jack Morris was a better pitcher than Bert Blyleven.



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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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syh
Member
5 years 4 months ago

As news has grown increasingly noisy, I’ve realized how little I need it. That isn’t to say it isn’t necessary at all, it is, just that hearing news immediately, hearing (often incorrect) speculation, particularly by pundits, is almost worthless. It is good if that’s your passion–I absolutely understand people that follow every MLB source, but it isn’t for me. I don’t really have a point here (sorry), just that I’m happy to sacrifice immediacy for accuracy and insight. In some ways it feels like a rebound from the growth of instant-analysis, one that will hopefully mix with the generally “freer” nature (editorially) of the internet to create something better (some sites are definitely on this path). Good article, Alex.

Jeffrey Gross
Guest
Jeffrey Gross
5 years 4 months ago

That’s why I do not watch CNN except for headline news. But I do read MLBTR regularly…hmm…

Danmay
Guest
Danmay
5 years 4 months ago

Nice reminder

Jack Weiland
Guest
Jack Weiland
5 years 4 months ago

Is this in response to something specific?

Albert Lyu
Member
5 years 4 months ago
westcoast hero
Guest
westcoast hero
5 years 4 months ago

“Many leaks are intentional, and many reporters are used as tools by their sources”

lol Boras via Jon Heyman

Evan
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

Great article, really interesting thoughts. I had never considered the challenge of reporting on the inner workings of a private corporation. I wonder what the parallels are between a business reporter working on Wall Street and a sports reporter. I imagine it’s more difficult for the sports reporter, as these franchises aren’t public companies, thus accountable to essentially no one.

deborahstover
Member
5 years 4 months ago

“When sportswriters cling to myth to the exclusion of truth, they are rightly criticized. However, when they publish intentional leaks as scoops, they are playing into the hands of their sources,”

Yeah right, I agree with you!..
krill oil

Joe R
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

Can we still agree that Jon Heyman is a narcissistic tool?

pft
Guest
pft
5 years 4 months ago

Basically, sports reporters are either PR representatives for the team they cover, or PR for MLB if their coverage is national. In fact, in Boston the biggest paper covering the Red Sox is owned by one of the Red Sox owners.

Steroids before the Balco investigation is a perfect example. The Andro story was broken by an AP reporter (she was then banned from the clubhouse IIRCC) while ignored by Cardinal reporters. The Balco story was broken by reporters who wrote for the business section of the SF paper. Local reporters even today avoid speculating on their teams players steroids use except to report their side, although since Balco and subsequent congressional investigations they take a hard stand when it involves players on other teams. National reporters are content to parrot MLB’s position that steroid use was never widespread and testing is effective.

In Boston in the pre-Balco days local reporters dared not follow up on Manny Alexander and the bat boy from Dorchester who was driving Manny’s car filled with steroids and syringes, which was found when he was stopped by police. Paxton Crawford alleged steroid use while with the Red Sox and spoke of one incident where he dropped syringes and stuff in the locker room while local reporters were present (this went unreported if true). After that story broke local reporters simply interviewed players with the team at the time of the incident and reported their standard denials while attacking Paxton Crawford.

Outside of sports and baseball, reporting is also a joke for many different reasons. Sponsors, politicians, ownership, etc all put pressure on stories which might hurt their special interests. What eventually gets reported after varying degrees of self-censorhip is just a watered down version of the truth.

Blogs are great, but do not have the wide spread readeship of mainstream outlets, nor the credibility, even if some are more credible. There are enough bad blogs with bad information that discredits any blog which happens to be reporting the truth. The truth is hidden in a forest filled with lies and distortions

In fact, when people choose where to get there news, either on the mainstream news or blogosphere, people just choose those which present the news in a way that fits their own pre-conceived ideology, and avoid the others. Kind of like picking a team to follow, CNN or Fox, NYTimes or NYPost, Huffington Post or Little Green Footballs, Red Sox or Yankees.

Pick your poison.

Landon
Guest
Landon
5 years 4 months ago

why do sports reporters get to so easily glide between reporter and writer…i.e. the facts and their soap boxes?

They want it both ways. That’s why they get a bad rap…

Pip
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

“A great deal of what is perceived as being scoops is in fact leaks.”

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