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"Raising the Bar": Basketball, Gender, and "Intellectual Journalism"

Even though the WNBA is on hiatus for the Olympic games, the growing league still has a lot riding on what happens in Beijing.

It seems like a safe assumption that a strong performance by the U.S. women’s basketball team could translate into increased attendance and/or ratings after the Olympic break…if managed correctly. And strong media coverage seems like a major determinant of that.

It should come as no surprise that the Women’s Hoops blog has done an excellent job of highlighting the best articles written about women’s basketball in the early stages of the Olympics.

One of my personal favorites was an article written by George Vescey in the New York Times. An excerpt regarding a hard foul by Tina Thomson on Penny Taylor:

Thompson denied any ill intent, at least beyond making sure that Taylor did not have free access to the basket. Two decades ago, the women were making crisp little passes and tossing up nice little layups off the backboard. Now, an intruder pays for the incursion, the way teams paid for trying to get around Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason of the Knicks back in Pat Riley’s day.

"In basketball, we are attuned to touching one another," Thompson said, citing her American teammate Diana Taurasi as a player who must be checked before she gets a step on anybody.

There are a few things about that paragraph that embody what makes the article as a whole great: it gives us a sense of the emotion of the Olympic games without sacrificing good basketball insight. And it gives us more than what many people might infer from common sense, which makes the article worth reading.

Most importantly, Vescey gives us some sense of the importance of this game to women's sports without trivializing the fact that these are passionate athletes, not just "me too" sports charity cases looking for athletic attention traditionally given to men. Articles like Vescey’s are just the type of publicity the WNBA needs because it draws people into the drama of sports without just being sensational.

There are entire blogs dedicated to what’s wrong with sports journalism, but I wonder what the ideal might be? And how might that ideal apply to women’s basketball? Reading Vescey’s article reminded me of an article I read at the Pop and Politics blog a few weeks ago about "intellectual journalism" and I think sports journalism stands to gain a lot from those principles.

What is "intellectual journalism"?

The biggest challenge of journalism is clearly objectivity – a journalism professor once told me that nobody can be objective and anybody that tells you they are is lying. Shazia haq from the Pop and Politics blog writes:

What is now become run-of the mill, conflict journalism is the result of journalists’ inability to relate with foreign cultures, according to Hedges, former New York Times foreign correspondent and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on global terrorism. “Journalists look around and see things that they can’t comprehend, and that is reported as incomprehensible,” he said.
Conflict journalism works because conflict sells papers and boosts TV ratings. However, when newspapers are dominated by ambition and greed, integrity and truth are suddenly lost in an attempt to make reality as provocative and sensational as possible.

Intellectual journalism
is the exact opposite of conflict journalism. Rather than oversimplifying the complexity of a given situation, it serves as a guide to make sense of a situation for those that have neither the time nor ability to sift through all the facts. It challenges people to expand their horizons rather than see everything in dichotomies. That’s exactly what women’s basketball needs…and exactly what sports journalism is not.

How does that intellectual journalism apply to sports…or the WNBA?

To understand sports journalism, we have to understand who consumes it: predominately 18-35 year old male sports fans (myself included). There is generally a very simple formula to appease that demographic: biased, black and white, conflict journalism.

In fact, part of the fun of being a sports fan is indeed conflict: from celebrating with others when your team wins to arguing about who’s the best player. In fact, since most professional sports games are played publicly, most sports fans don’t need information about what happened as much as the behind-the-scenes “fantasy news”: potential changes in the rotation, rumors about potential transactions, or injury updates. That’s the stuff that gives people something to talk about and helps you enjoy the experience.

And that’s fine for an 8 hour news cycle. But for a 24 hour news cycle, it’s insufficient – there’s not enough behind-the-scenes news to fill the cycle. So it begins to makes sense that more and more news outlets are hiring the loudest, most obnoxious professional fans as “sports reporters”, instead of true journalists that write out of love for the game.

All of this is of little consequence for an established sport, but niche sports like the WNBA suffer in this climate. We need look no further than the coverage of the recent Shock-Sparks melee for evidence – in the race to be the most provocative, there is little concern for respecting the athletes or actually helping people understand the state of the WNBA with actual facts.

However, it would seem that the way to confront the blatant homophobia, racism, and sexism that abound in people’s commentary about the WNBA is to help people challenge narrow perspectives by expanding their understanding of the game. It would seem that journalists could do that by appreciating the work the athletes put into their craft, promoting an understanding of the women’s game, and providing balanced coverage (especially in the absence of television coverage).

To represent the game well doesn’t necessarily mean that newspapers need to hire WNBA public relations representatives as beat writers; but journalists (and editors) should be accountable for respecting the game and appreciating it for what it is: a form of professional competition. I’m not saying the whole world has to like it, but there’s no reason to publicly disrespect it.

The type of coverage that the WNBA needs seems to fit well within the spirit of intellectual journalism.

Appreciating the craft

A major obstacle to the popularity of women’s basketball is that people find it so easy to demean the female athletes…and some of your “average lunkhead male” seems to even take pride in it, often dismissing it before having watched it.

However, I read a statistic some time ago that has stuck with me throughout the season – WNBA vice president of marketing Hilary Shaev described the positive effect of just seeing game footage:
"We took a controlled group of men and women and showed them game footage and, with the men," she said, "the positive perception of the game increased by 25%."
The take away lesson from this focus group seems to be that people do develop an appreciation of the game the more they see it. If we accept that premise, then it’s reasonable to say that increased exposure would lead to increased attendance and ratings.

Extending that reasoning to journalism, the goal should be to present as much insight into the game – through player interviews, vivid descriptions of key plays, or even statistics – as possible. This is especially true when considering the fact that so much of the WNBA goes un-televised.

The only way to appreciate the craft is to see it, and the only way to help others appreciate it is to present it as fully as possible. If the only thing we get is a recap with the score and the leading scorers, it’s difficult to appreciate what actually happened in the game; in fact, that’s hardly journalism.

Promoting understanding

Part of appreciating the WNBA is also about appreciating the fundamentals of basketball. Since the WNBA fan base includes many fans who are new to professional sports, there is an additional need to represent the game well so that people can understand it fully and stick with it.

I think that’s a simple task and goes right back to the need for papers to do more than just report a terse recap and box score. At some point, they have to present basketball insight so fans new to professional sports can participate in those arguments that make fandom great.


But the biggest obstacle to the WNBA is balanced reporting. Really, it’s not only a WNBA problem, but a much larger problem in professional sports.

It always surprises me when major media outlets talk about the WNBA being unpopular as though media exposure has nothing to do with that -- people can’t like a game they don’t see.

So the biggest obstacle for the WNBA is not bad coverage, but a lack of coverage. And unfortunately, it’s a problem in professional sports broadly. From Le Ann Shreiber:
We have gotten used to the narrow world of sports. In its news coverage, the world of sports is often shrunk to the North American big three -- baseball, football, basketball. And within those sports to a handful of dominant, usually big-market teams. And within those teams, to a few dominant positions -- pitchers, power hitters, quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs. The result is a predictable surfeit of certain stories, a force-feeding of portions so large that it makes one feel queasy, like after a big Thanksgiving meal. The disproportion also creates a dizzying lack of perspective -- so that a managerial change, if the team is the Yankees, is treated like the toppling of a nuclear power's head of state.
Women’s basketball writer Milton Kent described how he left his job essentially because the editors decided to narrow the scope in favor of ambition and greed.

This might present an interesting chicken and egg dilemma for the WNBA – it’s not currently lucrative so it doesn’t get much coverage, but if it doesn’t get more coverage, it cannot grow.

But this is also where principles of intellectual journalism apply to editor-level decisions – a decision needs to be made to allow writers to learn a game that may seem "foreign" in order to help it grow. If media outlets help the game grow, they stand to profit from it long-term once people like it. So in the end, balanced coverage of all sports – including the WNBA – greatly benefits the media. But that doesn’t mean tossing in an arbitrary two cents about the fight – it means taking an interest and constructing a narrative about the local team that people want to follow.

Conclusion: "Talk is cheap and reporting is expensive"

Due to the magnitude of the Olympics, we see journalists applying these principles to U.S. women’s basketball team now. Journalists are spending time to construct narratives about the most obscure teams and helping people to appreciate even the most obscure sports mostly because of the spirit of the games. But what if that same ethic were applied to the WNBA?

Clearly blogging provides a novel way for the average sports fan to serve as a conduit for quality journalism about the WNBA in what could be seen as an otherwise toxic sports journalism climate. Through blogging, we have the opportunity to present the sports world with balanced perspectives, fresh thinking, and a media free of corporate interests that have led many people to abandon mainstream media sources altogether. It can help the game grow.

However, what if ambition and greed were to affect bloggers as well? Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter describes some of the pitfalls that the "netroots" movement has fallen into:
Today, of course, we’re all press lords, or can be. But the "crowd-sourcing" of news cuts both ways. Like democracy itself, it can cleanse, correct, and ennoble. Or it can coarsen, spread lies, and degrade the national conversation.

The problem with blogging is the lack of the press credentials that provide access to behind-the-scenes news compounded by a dependence upon the very mainstream media sources that they are supposedly a corrective for. When ambition and greed turns information-starved bloggers into nothing more than eGossip columns or rumor mills without accountability, then there’s not really much of a benefit to anyone.

In other words, due to limitations of bloggers, the highest function of the WNBA blogosphere is probably to keep the mainstream media honest and push them to pursue an ideal of intellectual journalism by filling in the blanks when necessary. The hope would be that as appreciation and understanding are supported by bloggers, the mainstream media would pay attention and add balance to their reporting.

However there’s a critical weak link in that logic: will the "real" journalists be forced to pay attention? And if they don’t, how can the WNBA grow? (More on that later this week…)

Transition points:

However, this brings to mind a scene from one of my favorite movies – Citizen Kane – which was loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, who was mentioned in Haq’s article. The composition of the entire movie was outstanding, but this scene stands out to me as one that subtly (or maybe not so) captured the essence of the movie.

Of course we know what happened to Kane’s principles: as he got more and more invested in building his image as a champion of the people, his original principles were lost. The newspaper became an extension of his own vanity rather than a source of information to benefit the people.

Relevant Links:

What's Happening to The Atlantic?

Newsies (The Challenge of Intellectual Journalism)

The Double Edged Sword of the Web

ESPN-ing Blackness