Welcome to the Toy Department

Can Sports Journalists be serious?

Powerful entities in the spheres of politics and finance are theoretically kept in line by journalists; objective, adversarial professionals who ‘hold up’ the results of their investigations for the public to digest.  But what about sport?  Research suggests sports journalists are "quarantined from the requirement of critical investigation”… but why?  In 'Welcome to the Toy Department', Look What it Means to Him examines why the sports desk has a lowly reputation, and what impact this has on the games we love. 

Introduction: “Much that appears in the sports pages … is at best trivial and at worst little short of advertising” (1)

As covered in Much Read Little Admired, debate continues as to whether sports journalism is ‘proper’ news.  Some regard it as ‘non-serious’ output; a type of ‘soft news’ fit only to entertain or worse, enable small-talk (2).  Others believe sports’ cultural omnipresence makes its journalism ‘serious’, and that sports' most powerful institutions (e.g. FIFA, the IOC) require oversight from reporters acting as 'watchdogs' on the public's behalf.  However, while there is no consensus as to sport journalisms’ ‘seriousness’, everyone seems to agree on one thing; it has a terrible reputation.

Based on reviews of academic literature, it seems no examination of the sports media is complete without reference to the 'Toy Department', 'Toy Store' or 'Sandbox'; nicknames dedicated to the sports desk that situate it as a soft-news play area.  To be seen as “slimly-populated and barely tolerated” (3), “a bastion of ... sloppy journalism” (4) and “the laziest in the business” (1) in a profession ranked as one of the least trustworthy (5)(6)(7), is telling.  These anecdotal examples are underpinned by cold, hard, quantitative analysis; a 2005 study of sports-related newspaper content (8) indicated that 20% of sports articles are not informed by any sources.  The title of the study; ‘The World’s Best Advertising Agency: The Sports Press’ neatly summarises its findings (more specific outcomes from the study are shown in table one, below).

But how did it come to this, and why is such a popular form of journalism also regarded as one of the worst? Look What it Means to Him tries to answer these questions in 1,500 words or less...

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1. Collusion, gossip and scandal: “The closeness of the observer and the observed is widely acknowledged” (1)

Across all codes and continents, the most persistent criticism levelled at the sports media its casual acceptance of collusion. Rather than observe powerful institutions from a distance, sports journalists are accused of forming close, mutually-beneficial relationships with them.  If this unprofessional dynamic was proven to expose corruption or other systemic issues, then a degree of collusion might be palatable.  However, research suggests these alliances do not serve the greater good; they are used to obtain unpolished nuggets of scandal, a resource that can come at a disproportionately high price.

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In exchange for insider gossip the sports journalist is uniquely positioned to help their source.  This may range from small acts of manipulation to the outright suppression of public-interest material.  For example, a journalist might soften their criticism of a footballer, or provide them with a glowing appraisal to ensure their supply of dressing-room gossip remains intact.  This favour may not have immediate ramifications but it arguably normalises more harmful behaviours; like refusing to cover accusations of match-fixing or turning a blind-eye to doping.  According to the late, great Arthur Hopcraft, a respected football journalist who wrote for The Mirror and The Guardian in the 60s, the sports desk has a tradition of side-stepping material that might otherwise be seen as vital:

“… Illicit payments to greedy players, sweetening of fathers in the bargaining for the signatures of promising boy-players, boardroom politics which squeeze out the directors who ask the awkward questions … newspapers do not delve into matter like these.” (9)

Journalists who expose serious misconduct can, somewhat ironically, receive a grilling from their contemporaries.  When baseball journalist Steve Wilstein spoiled Marc McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s thrilling battle for the home-run record in 1998, he was initially castigated.  His crime?  Revealing that McGwire took Androstenedione, a legal* but performance-enhancing supplement that undermined the legitimacy of his achievements.  Wilstein's disclosure prompted other baseball journalists (known for subjectively ‘boostering’ or ‘cheerleading’ their favoured teams (10)) to challenge his allegations with an adversarial approach strangely lacking from their regular output.  But then again, Wilstein had dared commit not one, but two cardinal sins; he had jeopardised an all-American narrative and the historic, collusive dynamic between journalist and athlete.

Over a decade later, a new generation of journalists still hold Wilstein responsible “for creating a phoney atmosphere of crisis” (11), but is this preferable to sustaining a phoney atmosphere of legitimacy?  In the words of Arthur Hopcraft; “stories like these must damage (sport), but not nearly as much as the improprieties would if allowed to grow unseen” (9).

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2. Gatekeepers, access and excommunication: “If you dig too deep, you may lose your membership of the club…” (1)

Sports journalists may be associated with source-collusion, but this doesn’t entirely explain their lack of professional regard.  Tittle-tattle might feature regularly in our sports sections, but the majority of back-page content remains descriptive in nature; 58% of sports-related articles concern previews and reviews of events (8).  Unfortunately, it seems even the raw data that powers many of our mundane essentials; injury and suspension updates, match reports, FIFA rankings and UEFA coefficients, is also compromised, if not by collusion then by a form of compliance.

Some of the most revealing insights into this phenomenon come from John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson; two academics that, due to their position outside the sports-media, were able to write openly about FIFA’s influence and issues.  In Stories from Planet Football and Sportsworld the duo speak of their exclusion from FIFA events (the direct result of being critical) and how sports journalists interested in their work refused to publish it “for fear of losing their supply of … sports trivia which they needed to make routine copy” (1).  Their observation that “most (sports) journalists become self-censoring” (1) for fear of losing access resonates now more than ever, for FIFA has since been exposed for being inherently corrupt (12).  While we can only speculate, some of the £130m** allegedly spent by FIFA officials on kickbacks and favours, may have been directed to worthier causes had sports journalists' felt capable of asking difficult questions.

Sugden and Tomlinson’s assertions are consistent with those developed by some of the most respected, most cited observers of the sports media.  Namely, that sports' largest institutions increasingly recognise the "scarcity value" (3) of their assets, prompting journalists to suffer a professional "failure of nerve" (13)rejecting the interests of their readers to "maintain (a) symbiotic relationship with sports organisations” (14).  But while academics can provide vital insight into the sports-media complex, as journalists know all-too well; the best sources are those closest to the game.  The following quote, obtained via Sugden and Tomlinson's research into the sports media, comes from Mike Collett, football editor at Reuters.  In just 54 words, it arguably provides the most effective, and honest explanation as to why sports journalists lack a critical edge:

“Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am.  Going around the world following the sports I love, getting the best seats in the house, meeting all the top stars.  Sometimes I wake up in a sweat thinking that I’ve done something, written something, to blow it and I’ll be thrown out of this world.” (1)

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3. Conflicting interests and cyclical issues: In defence of the sports journalist

Despite being central to the issues outlined above, journalists' cannot take sole responsibility for the problems that afflict the sports desk.  Reporters only stack the shelves at the 'Toy Department'; they don't choose what goes on display or whether it sells. In fact, due to the unique demands of the role, there are reasons to feel sympathy for our back-page correspondents.  The average sports journalist is consistently asked to mix narrative with information, advertising with news and do both while appearing both neutral and subjective.  These conflicting requirements must be met while staying onside with players, agents, press-officers, sponsors and governing bodies who are increasingly conscious that they hold the power in the journalist-source dynamic.

Unfortunately, the overarching message from observers of the sports media is that the industry remains locked in a series of negative cycles, not least the absence of critical voices outside the industry (4).  While Sugden and Tomlinson's work demonstrates the importance of objective, critical observers stationed beyond the walls of the sports-media complex, they are all too rare.  This historic issue has resulted in Catch-22 situation; sports journalism lacks the critical, reflective tradition that identifies, questions and improves standards because its standards aren’t high enough (although, as discussed in previous articles, this may be changing).

The overall quality of sports journalism is also undermined by the emergence of the 24-hour news.  In theory, round-the-clock news enables us to be more informed, but critics argue the demands of the now-infinite news-cycle has reduced standards.  In the view of respected investigative reporter Nick Davies, 24-hour news has heralded the advent of 'churnalism’ (16); mass-produced journalism of suspect provenance and value, commonly sourced from PR companies.  As sports journalists' were compelled"to fill the … news-hole every day whether breaking news exists (or not)” (14) even before 24-hour news existed, then a general reduction in news-values (and increased PR-intrusion) risks amplifying existing issues.

The final, and most frustrating cycle is perpetuated by us; the fans.  Due to the attachments we form with athletes and teams, we relinquish the most basic consumer right; freedom of choice.  In the words of the modern club owner; we are uniquely vulnerable 'stakeholders', unable to switch to a competing 'brand' even if ours becomes defective, dishonest or too dear.  Arguably, if any consumer group needs an adversarial watchdog to inspect powerful institutions, it's the sports fans who enable them to exist in the first place.  However, due to our love of match reviews, previews and transfer gossip, we fail to provide the commercial imperative that might shake-up the modern sports desk.  Consequently, dishonest institutions, corrupt directors and Sepp Blatter can operate without sufficient fear of exposure.

In Conclusion...

The sports media is seemingly lopsided; a legion of journalists compete to furnish us with match reports, opinion pieces and speculation, but who's asking the difficult questions?  Even when presented with evidence of wrongdoing (1)(9) some sports journalists are content to remain as compliant cheerleaders; a problem that will remain as long as sports news retains “the authority of its own popularity” (17).  This lack of investigative zeal has many potential repercussions; the softening of post-match analysis to ensure players (and their clubs, and their agents, and their PR company) aren't offended, the proliferation of promotional material ("this interview with Wayne Rooney was brought to you by Modern Warfare 72: Underwater Warfare") parading as 'news', and the continued refusal to expose corruption, cheating and malpractice that might undermine our confidence in sport.

However, while this article has focused exclusively on the negative, there are reasons for optimism.  The following quote comes from Knud Larsen, a sports researcher involved in the production of the otherwise massively depressing 'International Sports Survey':

“Maybe we will just have to accept that critical and independent sports journalism is never going to find its way into the sports sections … Instead of being frustrated about the inadequacy of sports journalism we could hope that business and political journalism will answer the questions that sports journalism leave untouched" - (8)

As sports’ most powerful institutions grow in influence, they become relevant to journalists with fewer conflicting demands and greater experience in public-interest journalism.  Furthermore, while the number of critical observers outside the sports media remains low, anecdotally they are growing in volume (in both senses of the word).  The internet has given rise to what academics term ‘the networked fourth-estate’; a theoretical construct filled with bloggers and amateur journalists (I know, it sounds awful***) who, with no access to lose, can observe and report on the 'conventional' fourth estate'; the journalists who could be working in the public-interest, rather than producing what interests the public.  It is these amateur watchdogs and their academic counterparts who feature in the third and final part of Look What it Means to Him's series on the sports media, as we explore the phenomenon of the 'networked four estate' by asking ... 'Who’s watching the Watchmen'?

* Legal at the time - Androstenedione has since been made a categorised as a banned substance

** A conservative estimate

*** I'm fully aware I'm one of them