Who's Watching the Watchmen?

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Seen as producers of ‘soft’ or ‘non-serious’ news, sports journalists aren't held to the same standards as their political or economic counterparts.  But if consumers can care about match reports, injury news and transfers as much as they do about ‘serious’ topics, shouldn't this content be produced with a similar degree of care?  Who's out there ensuring the sports journalism we consume is accurate?

In the last in its series on sports journalism, Look What it Means to Him explores some of the football media's more comic missteps, and how, if journalists fail to do their jobs properly, the willing amateurs of the 'networked fourth estate' increasingly hold them to account.

NOTE: Sources are labelled numerically, with corresponding references provided at the bottom of this article

At 23 years of age, Masal Bugduv should be plying his trade in a top European league.  Hyped in 2009 as one of ‘Football’s Top 50 Rising Stars’ by no less an authority than The Times, the then-teenage Moldovan featured alongside Mesut Ozil, Robert Lewandowski and Jack Wilshire.  But while a number of his contemporaries became household names, Bugduv failed to launch.  Tales of young talent lost may be all too common in football, but this case was unique; Masal Bugduv couldn't live up to his potential because he didn’t exist.

The Times had failed to ensure that the 50 young talents they showcased all met the basic requirement of possessing both a) talent and b) matter; a lapse of editorial quality control that allowed a non-person to become one of the world's most promising footballers.  It transpired that The Times (and others) had been the victim of a hoax; bogus Associated Press (AP) reports singing Bugduv's praises (1) had been deliberately pasted in football fora and blogs then left for careless journalists to do the rest.  By effectively donning news-coloured camouflage, a fiction from the Internet's Wild West had strolled, unchallenged, into the mainstream media.  While the incident was absurd ... it wasn't even the worst of it's type that year.

In August 2009 the now defunct website ‘Crab Football’ published an excerpt from Nicolas Anelka’s upcoming autobiography; ‘It’s Not Me, It’s Everyone Else’ (2).  To avoid slipping into the gutter let’s just say the article revealed that Patrick Vieira had struck Anelka across the face in an unorthodox manner.  The story was manifestly untrue; Crab Football was a spoof website that wore its immaturity proudly on its sleeve.  As Max Rees, co-creator of the site asserted at the time; “I refuse to believe that anyone reading (the article) would believe (it) to be real” (3).  His faith was sadly misplaced.

The Anelka story was promptly scattered across fora and blogs, enabling a perfectly puerile rumour to gain credibility simply by existing in more than one place.  It remains unclear whether Antti Mäkinen subsequently found the story on Crab Football or one of the many sites that appropriated it, but either way, the Finnish sports commentator broadcast it as fact during domestic coverage of the 09/10 Charity Shield (see video below).  Thanks to another failure of journalistic rigour, unsuspecting Finns had to digest the produce of a juvenile mind … but the silliness doesn't end there...

The Anelka hoax was given a new lease of life six years after its initial publication when Alvaro Arbeloa, the former Liverpool and Real Madrid right-back, unexpectedly tweeted what appeared to be a page from the Spanish translation of Anelka’s autobiography... a book that, should we forget, never existed.

Thanks to Arbeloa’s tweet, caveat-free articles detailing the Anelka assault feature, to this day, on the websites of mainstream, European sport newspapers, including (but not limited to)Sport (4) and Mundo Deportivo (5). While it provides little comfort, the incident at least suggested that UK-based sports journalists aren't the only ones untroubled by veracity.

The sports media is guilty of worse (e.g. the conspiracy of silence among journalists who failed to report FIFA's staggering corruption for fear of losing access) but the absurdity of the Bugduv and Anelka incidents shouldn't dilute their significance or stop us from asking questions.  If one out of 50 ‘Rising Stars’ don’t exist, then how much faith can we place in the other 49?  Who ensures the football news that millions of us consume feverishly is more than just ubiquitous; it’s also accurate?  The examples above were not just selected for their ridiculousness (although that's a plus), they also represent moments where we, the fan, the sports-media consumer, have identified, queried and highlighted mistakes by people supposedly paid to be accurate.

Fittingly,  the Bugduv and Anelka hoaxes were exposed using the same tools that gave them an air of legitimacy.  In the case of the former, blogger Neil McDonnell was intrigued by a lone, critical comment ("such a player doesn’t exist, it is a fake”) beneath an article about Masal Bugduv.  By using the Internet's near-infinite information resources, McDonnell was able to determine that, yes, Bugduv did not exist, and was instead the result of a "social experiment" (6) (Neil’s excellent blow-by-blow account of his investigation can be found here).  By comparison, Antti Makinen’s mistake was recorded from TV, shared on YouTube and thoroughly picked apart (in-between justified LOLs) by the members of ‘Futisforum2.org’; a Finnish football forum (7).

In demonstrating investigative zeal that would make their professional counterparts blush, internet-enabled amateurs did more than just expose gaffes; they prompted retractions, revisions and cover-ups.  While by no means earth-shattering, these small victories are representative of an increasingly influential but nebulous new participant in the sports media landscape.  Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the ‘Networked Fourth Estate’; the theoretical construct you probably didn't know you were already part of.

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The traditional ‘fourth estate’ keeps powerful institutions in check by observing them on our behalf.  In this increasingly romantic model, journalists act as ‘watchdogs’, sharing their reportage with us; the public sphere, so we can better understand the world around us and make informed decisions.  By comparison, the‘networked fourth estate’, a term coined by professor Yochai Benkler, (8) contains a multitude of internet-enabled ‘actors’, including; independent news organisations, academics, bloggers and “networks of individuals participating in the media process” (8) .  Empowered by new technologies, the networked fourth estate asks questions of (and competes with) established media outlets and their journalists, for the watchmen that once observed the powerful on our behalf now require monitoring themselves.

Unfortunately, terms like ‘networked fourth estate’, ‘internet-enabled actors’ or ‘citizen journalists’ can be earnest to the point of #cringe, but ordinary people; fans like you and I, are increasingly playing an active role within these conceptual constructs.  Social media users, blog readers, comment spewers; when we're not uploading pictures of our dinners and our dogs, we're picking holes, taking exception and expressing (slightly disproportionate levels of) outrage about (an unrealistic number of) things.  We may feel so strongly about an article, an issue or a glaring error, that we’re compelled to act; perhaps by writing something like “such a player doesn't exist…” a comment that prompts another networked individual to do some digging.

But, as anyone who’s taken exception to their friends' Facebook posts will have asked; just because the internet enables us to do something, should we?  Should thenetworked fourth estate critique the sports media - a century old industry whose resources enable them to do things amateurs can’t?  Professor David Rowe, author of a number of influential books on the sports media suggests that while “people are (sometimes) too easily outraged” and others “are so partisan they aren't that interested in the objective truth” it is down to us, the sports fans, “to make a lot of noise … if there isn't enough policing in the craft, or by journalists …or if a sports organisation attempts to whitewash an issue.” (9)

The Internet’s influence is such that it’s difficult to recall a time before it existed, but as Rowe reminds us “(if) a fan was aware of a scandal, they were once restricted to ringing up a journalist who may or may not use what they say, so you might put a few leaflets around”.  These tactics not only require persistence, they are less likely to resonate and therefore less likely to effect change.  Now though, as Rowe maintains; “you can get stories out there in the network space fast … (fans) can exert their own pressure because sponsors don’t want a campaign or boycotts; stuff flying around social media that then gets picked up by the conventional media”.

The networked fourth estate remains in its infancy, at least within the context of the sports media, but it has a useful role to play and the power to improve standards.  While Rowe is careful not to over-exaggerate the influence of ‘citizen journalists’, he concedes that, thanks to those of us who pick holes in the mainstream sports media; “there’s probably more caution among those who are doing wrong; and that’s a way of making the sports world a little less cozy than perhaps it once was”.

In its most perfect form, the networked fourth estate could give rise to the public-minded ‘citizen football journalist' - an individual who cannot be cowed by FIFA; for his or her access is not controlled by a third-party, who cannot be influenced by Nike; for they don’t have the means to monetise their output.  They can sidestep an army of PR staff and a wall of media-trained stock responses to engage with footballers directly via social media, and any mistakes they should make along the way are highlighted and amended by other networked individuals acting as editors.

While impossibly utopian, this hypothetical model arguably exists in a diluted format; the internet gives us the raw materials we need to create our own, independent take on football (or any sport) and critique the work of others in a public forum.  The upshot is that the professionals increasingly need to do more than offer a ringside seat; they also need to be good at their jobs.  While forum members, bloggers and social media users are more than capable of disseminating poor-quality information, they're also improving journalistic standards, for in the words of David Zirin; “It’s a bold new world, and traditional sportswriters, with all their puffery and pretension, should step back from the team-sponsored buffet and open bar and get their hands dirty”. (10)

Sources

(1) 'Masal Bugduv – the 16-year-old Moldovan prodigy who doesn't exist' - The Guardian (link to article)

(2) 'Nicolas Anelka’s Autobiography Shocks The Literary World' - Crab Football (link to article)

(3) 'I apologise Mr Anelka!' - Blog post from co-creator of Crab Football (link to article)

(4) 'Anelka: "Vieira me dio una bofetada en la cara con su pene"' - Sport (link to article)

(5) 'Arbeloa recuerda el sorprendente golpe de pene de Vieira en la cara de Anelka' - Mundo Deportivo (link to article)

(6) 'The Curious Case of Masal Bugduv' - SoccerLens (link to article)

(7) Futisforum2.org - link to Futisforum2 members discussing the brodcast of the 'Anelka incident'

(8) 'A Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle Over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate' - Yochai Benkler (link to article)

(9) Skype Interview with David Rowe (thanks David!)

(10)  Toward a Radical Sport Journalism: An Interview With Dave Zirin - C. Richard King (Journal of Sport & Social Issues - link to article)