On sports media (Pt. 1): "A good columnist's thinking doesn't end until the event does"

I will never claim the real world experience to have all the answers about sports journalism.

However, as I think some other Swish Appeal writers might be able to tell you, I care quite a bit about writing and see blogging as a process of constantly improving upon my writing.

As someone with an undergraduate minor in print journalism and graduate training in ethnographic research, I also think about the distinct differences between the two forms: esoteric vs. public, research vs. reporting, inquiry vs. news. But what's most interesting about having dabbled in both is that there is definitely one major similarity: it's about documenting situations as a representation of some bigger whole.

Dave Kindred of the National Sports Journalism Center presented one articulation of what sportswriting is about that seems to resonate with the writing sensibilities I've developed from my experience in ethnography and journalism.

Archive » Oh, to be 21 and doing it all for the first time . . . » National Sports Journalism Center
"Sports is a microcosm of life – with the volume turned up," said Steven Ungerleider, co-chair of the Texas program’s advisory board and consultant to the U.S. and International Olympic committees. (Borrowing the "volume" line from the wonderful sportswriter, Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register.) "It involves virtually all of us, as athletes, coaches, spectators. It’s integral to teaching ethics, standards, and principles that touch every aspect of our lives."

Ungerleider's description of journalism does not necessarily call for increased touchy feely human interest stories that deify our athletes more than capture their achievements. Instead, I see it as a call for something much simpler: that journalists simply attend to the situation in front of them as an interaction between human beings as any other writer might.

Although I think there's a standard of journalism that should be adhered to across sports, I think good journalism is probably even more important for women's sports. Those that are truly invested in the growth of women's sports have to dedicate themselves to constant improvement if for not other reason to counter balance the piles of garbage produced by people who simply don't care. And I think good journalism that helps the game grow can be produced without becoming an outright cheerleader or public relations agent.

It seems like such a simple bar to reach until you take a look around at how sports - and politics for that matter - are sometimes covered. Somewhere along the way, journalism has morphed into a media culture where people's demand for instant commentary and pure opinion trump the fundamental responsibility for journalists to stay attuned to the situation itself. For me, the point is perfectly illustrated by a comment from former Newsday columnist Wallace Matthews.

On Newsday's Sports Page, It's All Good | The New York Observer
According to Mr. Matthews, Mr. Winnicki caught wind of those talks and asked why the Newsday columnist hadn’t informed him that he was considering leaving the paper. “I don’t want to work here anymore and I can’t imagine anyone who would,” Mr. Matthews said he told his editor. “I’ll enumerate the reasons. A, I’m getting more money; b, a freer contract; c, I don’t have to work for the Dolans; d, I can write what I want.”

The full article is worth reading to understand the context of Matthews' comments and the particular situation at a James Dolan-owned Newsday that he's responding to. It is not my intent to single him out as less than professional or say his approach to journalism is wrong. However, I use his sentiment to illustrate a tension that is readily apparent in sports journalism:

How should a writer balance the desire to "write what they want" with the demand to honor the significance of a sporting event as "a microcosm of life"?

The question seems especially pertinent to women's sports given the relative infancy of women's sports and the dominant attitudes floating around society about women, female athletes, and - this can probably never be addressed sufficiently - sexuality. Given the number of sometimes anxiety-inducing variables that influence women's sports, the impulse for journalists to simply "write what they want" can quickly become problematic - "keepin' it real" can quickly go wrong if you simply don't have the time or desire to actually develop an informed opinion about the subject matter.

The bottom line here is that I'm sticking to an argument that I made earlier this week: a media culture of opinion-driven, "SEO-smart", sensationalistic journalism might be fundamentally toxic to the coverage of women's sports at this particular moment in society.

Women's basketball needs something else.

However, I believe that critique without suggesting an alternative is like whining: it's sort of cute when you're two-years-old but at some point you have to start using your words and articulating what you want. 

So as it turns out, a recent sporting event has triggered some insight from experts that resonated with my thinking and that of a couple of two GMs I have spoken to during the WNBA off-season.

You might find it a little ironic that someone would draw upon coverage of Tiger Woods to find insights about covering women. However, the reflections on all that is wrong with the coverage of Woods' return to the PGA Tour might actually hold insight for thinking about a framework for coverage of women's sports.

And call me crazy, but the most basic point is this: covering sports is about covering a situation.

Journalists certainly should be able to "write what they want", but the primary objective should still be to write something that relates to the experience of being at the event taking place. Of course there are times when a one-sided rant is supported by plenty of evidence or conventional wisdom, but the problem comes when people fall so much in love with their own opinion that they fail to weigh disconfirming evidence.

Kindred articulated this point well in describing why Dan Wetzel's article about the Master's that wasn't about Woods was representative of "good journalism".

So I will quote him at length:

Archive » What Red taught us: “A good columnist’s thinking doesn’t end until the event does” » National Sports Journalism Center
A good columnist’s thinking doesn’t end until the event does. The good ones are always turning the kaleidoscope to see more sparkle. Red Smith once said, "Never write anything that you could have written before you saw something happen." So when Mickelson finished his round, Wetzel went to the press area 15 feet behind the scorer’s shed at the 18th green. There he might see something happen.

There he saw grown men crying. He saw Jim (Bones) Mackay, Mickelson’s caddy, and Butch Harmon, once Tiger’s swing coach and now Mickelson’s. Hard-case professionals, golf lifers – crying. "The way Bones was sobbing," Wetzel said, "you couldn’t fake that for a camera."

Wetzel had found the right column.

He took his readers to a moment of joy in the lives of Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, who has undergone multiple surgeries for breast cancer and has been rendered weak by continuing medications. Now, Tiger didn’t matter at all; in fact, he no longer belonged in the column. "It wouldn’t have been fair to Amy and Phil," Wetzel said, "to bring Tiger in on top of them."

Of course, Wetzel's last statement there is entirely subjective (or "what he wanted to write"): it's his interpretation of the situation. But it's still fundamentally grounded in an observation of the situation and not some grandiose musing. The point is that while other writers tried to cram Mickelson and Woods into a hero/villains box, Wetzel did the opposite for a simple reason, again quoting Kindred:

Archive » What Red taught us: “A good columnist’s thinking doesn’t end until the event does” » National Sports Journalism Center

By way of trashing Tiger, the most common tool used was an exaggerated appreciation of Mickelson as a husband, father, and man. The truth is, we have no idea. A year ago, most of us believed Tiger had done life well. Now, to make our morality play work, we have to put our foot on his throat while godding up Mickelson - to which Wetzel asks the good question about the virtues suddenly attributed to the new Masters winner, "How could anyone possibly know?" It wasn't long ago, remember, that some cynics with press credentials considered Mickelson a plastic man with a gambling jones who couldn't beat a broken-legged Tiger. But now, because he won a Masters in a year when his wife has cancer, he's considered to be flawless?

The reasoning for keeping his head while all about him others were losing theirs over Woods is simple: a) it would have been completely arbitrary to cram Woods into the story instead of something that actually transpired and b) it would have been applying an a priori framing to an event instead of honoring the event itself.

The standard "godding up" of Mickelson is not journalism - it's a bad screenplay conjured up in lazy imaginations. Finding faults in a public figure is probably the even lazier path -- anybody in the spotlight long enough will start to show flaws. What's great about what Wetzel did is that he wasn't merely "doing his job" - he resisted the path of least resistance that so many followed simply because it was available and trendy.

Which leads to a second point:

Since they have access, journalists should find a way to bring fans closer to the game and add to what everyone is talking about rather than pandering to it.

Ironically, this point was made quite well by Jacob Shapiro of the Columbia Spectator (perhaps only ironic because I have this crazy idea that professionals should be wiser than student reporters...but what do I know?). From the Spectator:

ESPN, sports media need to refocus

There’s no doubt that sports are made by star players who generate the most attention and income. When Albert Pujols hits a homer or LeBron James dunks over four opposing players, I want to see it. But, as Sports Illustrated correctly points out, I don’t want ESPN to cut to Lebron running the floor every time he has the ball, or only show Pujols’ at-bats during the course of a whole baseball game.

Any true fan knows that the beauty of any sport comes in the intricacies of the game, the little things that the common fan doesn’t notice. And this is especially true in team sports where teams win and lose together, regardless of how the star does.

While the message may be inadvertent, this sort of coverage argues that the outcome and excitement of sporting events are only made by the best players in the league and that all other parts of the game (and all other players) can be largely ignored in favor of following one player. Is this not the very message—the “no ‘I’ in team rule,” albeit in disguise—that we attack every day when our children are playing Little League? If it is, let’s hope our sports networks start behaving like it.

In ethnographic terms, we might say that the goal is to give an account of an event as an insider might tell it. In doing so, you take into account the entirety of a situation: context, the actors, and the interactions itself (pet peeve: yes, there are actually variables in qualitative research. They are just a lot messier and definitely not controlled). While that's not exactly what one might want out of sports journalism, it places the same burden on sports journalists: to actually gain an understanding of the event itself before moving to the level of interpretation.

That's what much of the coverage of women's sports lacks right now - an attempt to understand.

Of course, that does not require writers to ignore the bad and only write positive fluff (ask freelantz: I detest fluff). There are situations that call upon journalists to critique an athlete, coach, or general manager. However, there are ways to critique tastefully without just conjuring up a thought and then stringing together bad logic to make (up) a story (e.g. "UConn is bad for women's basketball").

And obviously there are constraints -- news should be timely. There should be deadlines. But if a writer is truly a student of the game -- and perhaps if certain deadlines were extended -- good work could still be produced despite the time constraint. If you pay close enough attention to the situation, there will always be contradictions, tensions, and blatantly faulty logic that will in fact be interesting to write about. The key is for the journalist to connect the dots and find the narrative in a mass of disparate details. Some drama will always unfold that grabs people's interest even if they didn't know they were interested before reading the article.

There's a simple reason for that: it's a sport. Sports are for fun. And if you just report the sport instead of your arbitrary opinions, it might end up being interesting.

So what might that look like for women's sports?

Tomorrow -On sports media (Pt. 2): Mel Greenberg, disciplined imagination and making the WNBA relevant

Transition Points:

  • Another interesting point to add to this discussion and an article worth reading for those invested in thinking about the craft.

    Beat reporters usually know the truth | Sports Field Guide

    As a journalist, Johnson should report the news as it happens, regardless the consequences. But this was not Watergate. As Johnson wrote himself: I’ve worked at the Tribune for 20 years and have weighed a multitude of delicate decisions in those decades. I’d like to think my body of work speaks to accuracy, fairness and objectivity. This may surprise some, but journalism has gray areas. You gather information, conduct interviews and then make decisions on what to publish based on what you know at that time. I will continue to work as hard as I can on every story and will weigh contributing factors on each, just as I did here and just as I have done throughout my career.
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