Look What it Means to Him doesn’t have access to Messi, Neymar or Pogba, but it can write timorous emails to people who have something new and interesting to say about football. You may not be familiar with the people I interview, but who needs another say-something-yet-say-nothing ‘EXCLUSIVE!’ with Jordan Henderson? Let’s try something different…
As explored previously on this site, the sports media remains comparatively underdeveloped as a field of academic research. While this is at odds with the cultural influence the industry now wields, important critical analyses of the sports media are available, and many of them have been written, co-authored or heavily influenced by one man; Professor David Rowe.
As the author of Sport, Culture and the Media Professor Rowe has written what I and many other students of journalism consider to be ‘the’ book for helping make sense of modern sports journalism. To steal from its foreword, the book “provides readers with the tools to analyse and understand the sports media for themselves … to take back a little of the cultural power that we have ceded to it”. Professor Rowe is also the author / co-author of a number of vital academic papers on the sports media; a selection of which I’ve listed below with links provided where possible.
Now based at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture & Society, Professor Rowe kindly spared me an hour to discuss one of Look What it Means to Him’s favourite topics; the football media and the role we, the consumer, increasingly play as its watchdog (as explored in ‘Who’s Watching the Watchmen?’).
NOTE: Changes have been made to the transcript of the original interview; some of my questions and Professor Rowe's longer responses have been condensed for the purposes of this article.
THE SCENE: Having secured my gassy, emotionally demanding bulldog in a separate room, I Skype Professor Rowe in Australia and after a caffeine-fuelled, skittish preamble, I stop wasting his time and blurt out a question.
LWIMTH: In a recent article on Look What it Means to Him, I attempted to explore how football journalists can disseminate questionable news without checking their sources; would you say this is a growing phenomenon in the sports media as a whole?
PDR: I think digitisation has encouraged a ‘bung it up now, correct it later’ type of approach that’s become something of a trend across the entire news media, but, in the sports media, one can imagine the consequences (of being inaccurate) might be less serious. But while I think, in the past, the sports media has been given a fair bit of latitude, that’s maybe being pushed by the emergence of sports gossip; I think there’s now a lot more of it, and a lot of that stuff doesn’t rely on veracity; it’s rumour, and some of it is very trivial.
LWIMTH: Are there any real repercussions when journalists churn out unsubstantiated sports gossip? Can it cause reputational harm?
PDR: It can bring sports journalism into disrepute, for example; the case of Simonya Popova (the non-existent yet much-hyped tennis player). A lot of journalists went to the Tennis Federation to ask for interviews with her! These scams or tricks happen every now and again and they can expose sports journalists. The problem is, these same journalists may later complain that they aren’t taken as seriously (as other types of journalist) ... but then they also can’t be bothered to do checks or rely on ‘fixing things up later’, and that’s an issue.
LWIMTH: If there’s more sports-gossip and inaccurate news in circulation, has this prompted a corresponding rise in sports media consumers critiquing sports content, and acting as 'watchdogs'?
PDR: Well, there will always be elements of the public that aren’t interested in the objective truth because they’re so partisan. They aren’t particularly interested in the truth as such; they’re interested in supporting their team, lionising their team and ridiculing or abusing other supporters. But there are other people who take sports journalism seriously, and while they have partisan leanings, they also have a commitment to a public sphere standard. These people will pick up journalists, not just in terms of accuracy, but for a whole range of ‘isms’, so highlighting journalists who stereotype and reinforce prejudice.
LWIMTH: On that last point; there seems to be an emerging trend where people actively seize upon perceived prejudice in the media, or on social media, are we seeing a similar trend when it comes to sports news and athletes?
PDR: I think we are. I use a bit of social media myself and I think it’s fair to say that some people are easily outraged. You can see that some stories, where people have made a misstep or genuine mistake, are blown out of proportion. But when someone says something really serious, if there isn’t enough policing in the craft or by journalists, or if a sports organisation attempts to whitewash an issue, then I think it’s down to the fans to make a lot of noise.
LWIMTH: But can that actually make a difference, or is it simply 'noise' and nothing else?
PDR: Well, fans can now exert their own pressure. The last thing sponsors want is campaigns or boycotts; lots of stuff flying around social media that gets traction and is picked up by the (mainstream) media which then pings back into social media again. I think people that would have got away (with bigotry) before are finding it harder now. Of course it helps that, with a digital record there, you can bring it back into public debate and discussion.
LWIMTH: Is there a risk that some of this outrage is simply ‘slacktivism’ and doesn’t really have an effect on the sports media?
PDR: When people express outrage over less serious things it can mean we risk losing perspective over what we should really be outraged by, but I do think, at least I would hope, that citizen journalists could have some impact ... But, I mean, I wouldn’t want to exaggerate it though and nor would I want the ‘big media’ to fall over. Large organisations have the resources and authority which can mean a story has ‘legs’ rather than just being a one-day wonder
(Warming to the theme) I think we have more complex public sphere now; we have a mainstream media under more pressure due to digitisation, and an element of this is due to fans, amateur sleuths and citizen journalists. They’re creating a volatile environment, or dynamic; it doesn’t always produce great outcomes but you would think it makes it harder for sports people, clubs and organisations to get away with the things they used to.
A classic case (of consumers having an effect) is when sports people behave badly in public; everyone’s carrying a camera so people can upload and disseminate this information quickly. This is a big change; it’s happened really only in the last decade. However, what maybe hasn’t changed is the standing of sports journalism in the industry overall; some (journalists) might be very well regarded and well paid, but your run of the mill sports journalist still has an image problem.
LWIMTH: The general public are quick to highlight individual acts of bigotry in the world of sport, but do you think they could ever expose a major issue; like endemic corruption within FIFA?
PDR: I think that’s already happened; all journalists are reliant on leaks and whistleblowers, so members of the public and people in the sports industry have probably provided journalists with that type of information in the past. But what sports journalists have tended to be poor at, either because they weren’t qualified, weren’t interested, or were too concerned about compromising their cozy relationships; is investigative work.
Most of the work exposing scandals in sport has not been done by sports journalists, but fans. Fans don’t have the same constraints (as journalists). Let’s say a fan was aware of a scandal; they were once restricted to ringing up a journalist who may or may not use what you had to say. Instead, you might put a few leaflets around, but now you can get stories out there in the network space fast. That’s probably going to lead to 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.
LWIMTH: Do you see sports journalism's image changing any time soon?
PDR: If sports journalists want to improve their standing they need to engage in more critical and investigative journalism … something that looks at the institution of sport itself, warts and all, and unpacks that and analyses that. They need to combine the area knowledge they have developed with a capacity for investigation, to break stories of consequence (about say) unethical behaviour or corruption. I think sports journalists need to engage in that kind of activity if they ever want to have standing that's beyond that of being summarisers, commentators, cheerleaders … that kind of thing.
I think a capacity for investigation would improve with the increased diversity of sports journalists; fewer older white men, more women, people from different backgrounds, better educated than those of previous eras. Let’s hope that they will take sports journalism into the future and develop it. I don’t want to be unnecessarily optimistic, but I do read some good sports journalism, while we're beginning to see some of the more ‘gossipy’ sites move into more serious territory; they’re starting to become proper news organisations.
LWIMTH: David, I’ve taken you well over our allotted time with my longwinded questions, so I’ll let you go. Thanks very much for your time!
PDR: No problem – bye!