McGuire on Media

Can sports reporters say they are sorry?

I am a little hesitant to take on ESPN because I just read that ripping on ESPN moves the needle. I am not a needle-moving type of guy these days so that’s not really my intent. ESPN simply allows me to address an important issue about sports coverage and apologies.

Kirk Herbstreit, the engaging analyst for ESPN, caused consternation from Baton Rouge to Ann Arbor Saturday morning when he said LSU Head Coach Les Miles would go to Michigan. An ESPN story said Herbstreit,  citing a "source," reported  that "barring unforeseen events, Michigan would announce that Miles would accept their head coaching job. Herbstreit also reported that Georgia Tech defensive coordinator and interim head coach Jon Tenuta would go with him."

Within hours the southern portions of Hades broke lose. Miles had a team to coach in a game later that afternoon. Miles was soon, through another ESPN "source,"’ denying he was going to Michigan.  Finally at 1:30 he held a press conference announcing he was staying at LSU.

I’d say Herbstreit was wrong.  ESPN wouldn’t. At least not that I’ve heard.

That night on the Arizona State-Arizona game ESPN analyst Bob Davies, another favorite of mine, said he thought LSU "squeezed" Miles and, in effect, made him stay at the school.  Monday morning ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd defended Herbstreit saying that something must have changed after Herbstreit reported his information.  Then Cowherd did a rap on how "we all make mistakes."  I couldn’t agree more.  We all do. But many of us learn processes, principles and values which help us minimize mistakes. And, most of us apologize when we hurt someone with a mistake.

This is another case of the rampant use of unnamed sources without any structure or transparency.

Let me rely on my old Poynter friends, Bob Steele and Al Tompkins. They have presented some rules for confidential sources

· A story that uses confidential sources should be of overwhelming public concern.

· Before you use an unnamed source you must be convinced there is no other way to get the essential information on the record.

· The unnamed source must have verifiable and firsthand knowledge of the story. Even if the source cannot be named, the information must be proven true. If you are unsure if the information is true, admit it to the public. .

· You should be willing to reveal to the public why the source cannot be named and what, if any, promises the news organization made to get the information.

When I teach students I add what I call Tim’s final rule:

No anonymous pejoratives EVER.

Let’s analyze Herbstreit’s actions in light of these guidelines.  Sports journalism is veering away from the "overwhelming public concern" standard practically every day. Senators, Presidents, CEO’s and religious leaders might argue that Les Miles going to Michigan is not of overwhelming public concern. I think there’s a heck of an argument that coaches’ comings and goings are not even of overwhelming public concern in the SPORTS world. I might go out on a limb and argue that his future job plans are not of overwhelming concern the day the guy is coaching a game that could get his team into the national championship. Unless I’ve got it absolutely nailed.

I will admit this is the kind of story about which you will probably find no public record and key figures will probably not leak, but that is not an excuse.  It is a warning flag.  It should tell you that getting the story on the record is so difficult it might not be worth the risk of using unnamed sources.

This story goes kablooey (a technical ethical term) on Tompkins and Steele’s third requirement: "the unnamed source must have verifiable and firsthand knowledge of the story. Even if the source cannot be named, the information must be proven true." It appears Herbstreit only had one source. Two should be minimally required for this kind of story. Further, the nature of Herbstreit’s source is crucial.  Is it a principle?  Is it someone directly involved in negotiations. Is it a rival coach or a rival school representative? Herbstreit and his editors needed to ask a couple of questions. Could my source, because of his proximity, or lack of proximity to the truth, possibly be wrong? Secondly, if my source is wrong what would be the consequences?

The final step is to tell the public why the source won’t be named.  This is the transparency part.  Imagine Herbstreit saying my source demands to be anonymous because he’s from Michigan. You would immediately wonder if the Michigan man is trying to squeeze Miles. Or, let’s say Herbstreit said my source is from LSU. You might assume the source is trying to squeeze Miles. My favorite possibility that might have occurred is if Herbstreit told you the source was very close to Miles. That would probably tell you Miles was serving his own interest and later, when her denied it, you might say well, wait a minute he set this whole thing up.

My final rule about no anonymous pejoratives may not seem to to come directly into play here, but it certainly does if Herbstreit’s source was up to mischief.  If Herbstreit analyzed the motive of his source he might conclude that somebody wanted Miles distracted from his big game. That meanness could have been behind the leak.

Too often sports reporters do not give careful attention to the motives of their sources or the potential consequences of being wrong.  One of the reasons for that may be the lack of  organizational consequences when a sports reporter is wrong in this kind of case. I may be wrong, but at this point I have seen no institutional apology from ESPN. From what I’ve seen his ESPN colleagues have only made excuses.  I have seen no personal apology from Herbstreit, but perhaps I’ve missed it.

The only outrage I’ve seen is from bloggers and readers commenting on those blogs. So sports media credibility takes another hit, and the media institutions and the keepers of the flame shrug. 

It is no wonder that ripping on established media has become such a popular sport.

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