"Much read, little admired" - Can sports journalism be ‘serious’ journalism?
Much like celebrity tittle-tattle, sports news is generally regarded as a 'lower form' of journalism. In the first of a series of articles taking a closer look at sports journalism, Look What it Means to Him examines why this view persists, what its detractors say in return and what it means if they're right.
Depending on your opinion of sports journalism you may be surprised to hear that it's not 'real' news; at least, not in the view of many media scholars. Established academic theory argues that sports journalism is a non-serious form of news; it is soft, human interest content that, like celebrity gossip, is useful as a "lightener of the social atmosphere" (academic for 'small talk') but little else. By comparison, politics and current affairs sit atop the news hierarchy; they are serious in nature, delivering hard news in the public interest (i.e. the economy falling over) not throwaway news that interests the public (i.e. Madonna falling over). If serious news helps us understand the world around us then non-serious news only provides an escape from it.
Sports' non-serious label can seem like an act of academic snobbery ("well they would think that, wouldn't they?") and while an hint of condescension might be in-play there is plenty of evidence to explain why sport has been seen as soft for so long. Many of our back-page 'staples' are through no fault of their own, devoid of public-interest material; match previews do not expose corruption, transfer speculation doesn't help us vote. But with much of its content viewed as non-serious by default, sport also damages its reputation by sharing attributes with celebrity news; anecdotally accepted as the 'worst' kind of journalism. Sport and celebrity journalists both produce content that doesn't try to change the world, both produce content that doesn't care if it's accurate. Both have become mainstays of every modern news outlet, but both owe this position to their ability to sell units or act as clickbait, not their ability to inform the public.
Interestingly, sports' harshest critics tend not be academics, but other journalists. Of the more persistent slurs cast at the sports-desk, ‘toy department’ and ‘sandbox’ feature with worrying regularity; both suggest an less-than-professional approach to news. The late Terry Pratchett, himself a former reporter, once claimed to have done “every job (in journalism) but…sport, because even vultures will throw up on something”. Even sports journalists themselves seem uncertain as to the value of their vocation; a conflict encapsulated by Hugh McIlvanney’s admission that “after more than 30 years of writing on sport, it is still possible to (doubt) whether it really is a proper job for a grown person”.
Fortunately for the sake of a well-rounded argument, a growing number of academics, journalists and media analysts are challenging the status quo by advancing new theories about sports journalism. Of these dissenting voices one of the loudest (and readily quotable) belongs to David Zirin; an American sportswriter and outspoken advocate of sports' capacity to spark constructive debates. Despite having a vested interest in emphasising the importance of his own trade, Zirin's standpoint serves as a solid introduction to arguments defending sports' ability to be serious. According to Zirin, sporting events and their associated media coverage are laden with public interest material, especially as “people aren’t alienated from sports the way they are from formal politics. Therefore, we often get a more honest discussion about issues like labour rights, racism, sexism and homophobia, through the prism of sport”.
Zirin’s point of reference might be American football, but one can transplant his examples onto any popular sport (and its associated journalists) without fear of rejection. In the last year alone, British football journalists have presented us with jump-off points for debates on labour rights (Qatari stadia facilitated by wage slaves), racism (abuse of a black commuter by travelling Chelsea fans), sexism (the F.A’s ‘welcome home’ tweet to the England women’s team) and homophobia (the continued, yet entirely artificial absence of high-profile, gay footballers). There are countless examples where football has asked us to confront serious topics but in an unconventional fashion, perhaps without us even realising.
According to David Rowe (an authority on all things sports media), sports journalism demonstrates seriousness most perceptibly through its influence on cultural and national identities. In Rowe’s view; “if culture is the ‘stuff’ of everyday life; the frame through which we experience … everything that surrounds us; then sport occupies an uncommonly prominent position within it”. Based on Rowe's theory, the images, ideas and rhetoric used to describe a sporting event can challenge, distort or reinforce the way we see ourselves and others; an unconventional by still 'serious' form of influence. A simplistic example of this process is detailed din picture two (below).
If sport, as Zirin and Rowe suggest, encourages discussion and influences cultural citizenship, we should also consider the scale on which this process can occur. To some, the amount of space dedicated to sport is “symbolic … of declining standards” or evidence that modern papers are more concerned with popularity than informing the public. To others, sports journalism's mass-appeal means something else; it enables a larger audience to engage and discuss the hard topics hidden within sports news. The way sport throws serious content at us might be coarse, the messages and conversations they prompt might be limited or negative, but hypothetically speaking sports journalists' are capable of engaging with (and provoking discourse among) a larger potential audience than their more traditional, public-interest counterparts.
Sports journalism remains comparatively underdeveloped as a field of research (an unfortunate byproduct of sports' lack of critical regard) but studies into its influence lend vital, peer-reviewed heft to an otherwise theoretical debate. In-depth analysis of tabloid journalism conducted in 2003 found the tabloid use of wartime rhetoric encouraged nationalist sentiment and violence during Euro 96. A similar but entirely separate review of the same phenomenon, this time conducted by the government, determined in no uncertain terms, that “xenophobic, chauvinistic and jingoistic gutter journalism” contributed to outbreaks of racist violence. Despite being an unfortunate example of sports journalism's influence, if the industry were truly soft, would it be capable of provoking such a reaction?
As part of a four-year study of the sports media, Dutch researchers Knoppers and Elling found some journalists' refused to give women's sports' added on ethical grounds. Their reasoning? Niche sports shouldn't be given special attention; coverage should be driven what's popular. It just happens that the most popular sports are played by men. However, the market doesn't explain why the same researchers discovered that “women were … presented as emotional and dependent on men (coaches and fathers) for their successes”, by a predominantly male workforce. If, as Rowe suggests, sport contributes to the construction of identity, then the subconscious (or deliberate) bias observed in the Dutch media should be a cause for concern; instead it risks being ignored because sport is 'only' non-serious and therefore of less consequence.
While a 1,000-word article cannot do justice to a complex, evolving debate, hopefully it can provide an introduction to an interesting phenomenon; that one of the most heavily-consumed, commercially and socially influential forms of journalism remains critically marginalised. While this may not seem like an important issue, it prompts further questions; is a form of media that influences how we see the world being treated with suitable care? Are the denizens of the 'Toy Department' responsible with the power they wield? In the second part of Look What it Means to Him's examination of the sports media, we take a closer look at the criticisms leveled at the sports desk and ask ... Can Sports Journalists' be Serious?