McGuire on Media

No snickering allowed: I want to explore sports media ethics

Okay, so I kind of volunteered. I suspect the assistant dean knew I couldn’t resist and set a gentle, loving trap. The dean did warn me I won’t be teaching only journalism majors.  The dean did mention that the sports media class at ASU has not been  regarded as a “serious” class. It’s been a class mostly taught by busy adjunct professors who have meant well, but serious scholarship may not have always been the goal.  As a result of the dean’s warnings I know a professor intent on an in-depth, thoughtful exploration of the frightening, maddening ethical developments in sports journalism is going to be as popular as a 10-inch snowfall in downtown Tempe. Hey, get in line. I was an editor!

But I asked myself, “Why are you doing this teaching gig if not for fun and adventure?” That shaping future journalists stuff can get a bit burdensome. So, I decided to jump into the sports journalism fray. As I winced through rumors, unnamed sources and poor interviews, I decided screaming at the television was not enough. Wadding my morning sports section in a tight little ball wasn’t fixing much either. I want to do something more proactive to fuel this debate, even if it is to simply promote Le Ann Schreiber and the fresh breeze she has brought to sports criticism as ESPN ombudsman.

As I’ve started my preparations, I have discovered some other voices are doing some good things to explore sports journalism ethics and trends. An Eastern Illinois University instructor named Joe Gisondi writes some nice instructive stuff. He’s incredibly practical. His latest blog offers tips on how to take sports scores from team callers. His advice is darned good.  Another sharp blogger is Dr. Brad Schultz, an assistant professor at Mississippi. He also runs the Journal of Sports Media which seems to be quite a scholarly effort to bring some academic perspective to this field.

So, the first thing I’ve learned in this quest to explore sports journalism with some academic structure is it’s not going to  be a lonely pursuit. And yet, I decided I wanted to broaden the conversation. This blog entry was originally going to be a letter to seven or eight sports editors and newspaper editors I consider friends to elicit their stories–horror and otherwise– that illustrate or argue with my basic premises. I was going to inform those friends I wanted their ideas and specific examples of good ethical decisions and bad for this course and perhaps even for a subsequent book. Suddenly the 21st century hit me upside the head.  I realized the hip thing to do is to invite blog readers into this discussion.  So, I am looking  for specific sports media cases which teach lessons on how sports journalists should act ethically. Obviously, unethical behavior is often the best way to teach ethics.

The best way to get a feel for what I’m seeking is to understand my first draft of where I want to take the course.

I will start the course by setting the parameters of the discussion. Sports is not the pursuit of toys and games it once was.  Billions of dollars are at stake. Raw power is used and abused in sports in ways seldom seen in society. Fans risk marriages, business deals, professional advancement and social intercourse (the other kind too!) to rabidly follow their teams and to participate in fantasy leagues. I’ve always been a huge sports fan, but I come from an era where fantasy meant something very different. This potential lack of perspective creates vast issues for media. Television and print has to deliver information and analysis in a very different frame than Grantland Rice did. 

To quote my favorite book, Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel,  journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. From public statements it appears many sports figures take great exception to that assertion. In the eyes of too many athletes, and just as many readers, truth is not the first obligation and it might not make the top ten. In analyzing truth in my regular ethics class I morph into studying bias.  In the sports world that inevitably leads to “homerism” and I am not talking about the Greek author. Have “homers” been eliminated from sports? Have some people fell off the cliff the other way?

The mandate to “do no harm,” or at least minimize harm, gets kicked around pretty brutally in sports coverage. I am sure some of the players implicated in the steroids scandals are going to be pretty surprised that sports media tries to avoid doing harm.  I sometimes argue to my students that the media seems to take a “celebrity” exception when it comes to many ethical standards in celebrity coverage.  I fear that mirage of an “exception” is starting to apply to sports.  Privacy is another ethical concept getting banged around pretty hard in sports journalism.   Witness Alex Rodriguez’ alleged affair.  At the Star Tribune many years ago we heard many stories about alleged bedroom escapades of a star player, but we never saw the relevance.  Apparently relevance has become quaint.

In my Media Ethics class I spend a whole week, two class sessions, on a subject I call “ethically managing sources.” Considering how rampant unnamed sources, “trade rumors” and “informed” source information on coach hirings and firings have become, I might have to take a whole month of this sports media course to probe why sports journalists seem to think all the bad practices that have risen up around Washington reporting should be adopted for sports reporting. Much of that discussion will, of course, have to focus on intentional manipulation by agents, stars, administrators and owners.  The sports media world’s complicity with that manipulation is either scandalous or darn good reporting, depending on whether you’re getting the view of the manipulator or the manipulated.

Oh, and I might be able to find room to discuss conflicts of interest. Joke! Media folks tend to dwell on how far we’ve come in the area of conflict or interest and don’t spend a lot of time on where we are, which is not nirvana.  Certainly , the conflicts are often more sophisticated than when my college failed to pay the local sports editor for coverage of our sports program.  Now the bigger conflicts are editorial support for stadiums and increased spending on players for teams when it is quite clear the sports media purveyor will be a prime beneficiary.

There’s lots more, including gender and diversity in sports which could be an entire course. I will share my completed syllabus when I have one. For now, I’d love to get fodder for case material to illustrate, explain, and debate the issues above.  You can file your ideas as comments to this blog or send them to my ASU email address.


David Carr legitimized The Week in the New York Times today. This magazine that digests, condenses and steals from every other information source in the universe has been saying something important to print people for as long time now. I know young people who swear by it, news junkies who love it and newspaper and magazine folks who don’t know it exists.  The Week is the kind of digest the current information glut requires.  I have talked for years about a “guide and direct” function for news media. This is exactly the kind of magazine that takes the reader by the hand and says, “Here, let’s get smart about the world in the next half hour.”  It is very cool. I am proud to say I subscribed two weeks ago. That subscription was the result of the magazine’s one Achilles heel–it’s darn hard to find.

Oh,, and as my colleague here at ASU, Assistant Dean Kristin Gilger points out, there is one little bitty problem Carr failed to discuss. As Kristin says so eloquently; “What happens when there is no longer support for the publications that actually report on the news as opposed to just taking everyone else’s work and digesting it?” There is that!

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