As a part of a university program designed to train aspiring sports journalists, I often ask students why they dream of some day becoming a baseball beat reporter, sports columnist or, more often, a part of the anchor team on Sports Center. Their answers often (but not always) run along this line of reasoning: 1) they love sports, but 2) they've missed their chance to become the next great sports phenom, so 3) they've decided that sports journalism is the next best thing. It gives them access to a world they crave to live in.
I don't hear this same line of reasoning among my students who want to cover news or even entertainment ("I really want to be mayor, but I figure that won't work out, so I'd like to cover politics"). Instead, these students want to practice journalism as a craft and vocation, period. They seek to adopt its values and to live its aspirations in whatever they cover.
But sports journalism students may, if not challenged to do otherwise, live the aspirations of sports fans-not journalists. They may seek to identify with athletes and teams, to use sports as a way to socialize with, and perhaps to wager on, their mental mastery of sports through fantasy leagues and betting pools. This "wannabe" culture among sports journalism students, I'm afraid, replicates one in the larger industry. Howard Cosell talked about it years ago when he criticized "jockocracy"-the hiring of former athletes as journalists.
"Wannabes" generally don't make critical or even good reporters and editors. Their allegiances aren't with news consumers, but are, instead, with the athletes, teams and leagues they cover. Perhaps that is one reason why the steroids-in-baseball story took so long to emerge, although sportswriters admit they knew about it for years. One has to wonder what other stories in the public interest (about systematic problems and corruption in sports, including those at the prep level) may have also gone unwritten. Although perceived as fun and games, sports at almost every level in the United States have become big business with consequences beyond the playing fields. Sports journalists have an ethical obligation to provide citizens and consumers with fair and balanced reporting on issues that affect their communities, their pocketbooks and the health and educations of their children.
Further, sports journalists must remember that they're part of a larger profession. The way they practice the craft reflects on anyone who works in a newsroom. The credibility of journalism is built or eroded by contributions of everyone within the profession, no matter what they cover.
Because sports journalists often aren't driven by the values and goals of journalism in general, it is no surprise that surveys show that they often do not think they need to adhere to journalism's ethical norms. This is true in relationship to the acceptance of free gifts and tickets, for instance, and "homerism" or "boosterism" in coverage of local sports teams. ESPN, through its famous self-promotion campaign ("This is SportsCenter."), has produced a number of spots designed to highlight its cozy relationship and "insider status" with sports figures and organizations.
At the same time, sports editors and reporters say in surveys that they want to adhere to the same codes of ethics as their counterparts in news. This kind of double-talk may be part of the reason that sports journalism has suffered from a "toybox" reputation in newsrooms. Further, a 2005 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that focused on newspaper sports pages found that they don't, indeed, deliver much in the way of serious journalism.
Yes, we need to acknowledge the unique ethical pressures faced by sports journalists. Covering the city's major (or minor) league baseball team can't be compared to covering the education or politics beat. The deadlines, the heavy reliance on sources and issues of access to those sources, among other things, are different. And journalists on non-sports beats do not face the opportunities and the pressures that sports journalists face-for example, easy access (and tickets) to high-profile sports events and ego-boosting requests to vote in prestigious hall-of-fame or award competitions for athletes.
There are other differences, too, in what media consumers want from sports journalists. Often, it's "good news only" coverage about the home team. Sports journalists who've exhibited an investigative bent haven't been well received by many fans.
Sports journalists also face a type of competition not faced by most of their newsroom counterparts, in the form of direct competition from the athletes, teams and leagues they cover through Web sites and cable operations such as those operated by the NFL. As sports media critic Robert Weintraub points out, gone are the days when the beat reporter was the sole conduit of news about athletes and teams. Major League Baseball has its own "reporters," for instance, who post stories designed to compete with those published in mainstream media outlets.
Hence, the problem, as I see it, is how to reconcile the motivation for many journalists who go into sports-a desire not to be journalists as much as to cover sports, with the unique ethical pressures that reside there-with the ethical standards of journalism. It is obvious that to deliver serious, meaningful coverage requires the willingness to outgrow toybox image and practices.
The Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) organization has taken steps to help the industry focus on issues of professionalism and ethics. For instance, it has an ethics code that addresses "freebies" and other potential conflicts of interest. But this code falls short in several areas: It fails to address some of the stickier issues that have troubled sports journalists of late-for instance, those involving gambling on sports and voting in sports polls.
A growing number of news organizations have addressed both by banning this sort of voting and gambling by staffers, but the proportion that have done so is still low, according to a survey of sports editors conducted by the Penn State Center for Sports Journalism (see table). The survey also found, as expected, that smaller papers have fewer written guidelines about sports journalism issues than do larger news organizations. The problem there is that many journalists (including sports journalists) who graduate from programs like ours get their first job in a small newsroom. Bad habits can develop there, and they may be hard to break as a journalist moves up through the ranks.
What's the answer? The APSE needs to take a lead role in helping individual newsrooms to carefully and specifically address the ethical issues faced by sports journalists, then communicate these regularly to staffers. Discussions about ethics and professional practices in journalism need to be routine in every corner of newsrooms of all sizes. Further, the growing number of sports journalism programs across the U. S., including my own, must help those aspiring beat reporters, columnists and anchors examine their own motivations and values as they consider a career in the field.
Editors at 181 of the Top 200 (2005 circulation) U. S. newspapers responded to a survey that asked whether their departments had adopted a written policy in the following areas. The percentages are affirmative; the headings refer to circulation category.
Overall 250K+ 100K+ 40K+
Sports betting by staffers 27% 33% 35% 20%
Free tickets for staffers 68% 76% 74% 61%
Gifts, gratuities, discounts 78% 82% 80% 76%
Voting in polls 15% 30% 17% 9%
Writing for media guides 48% 79% 55% 31%
Reporters as game scorers 31% 46% 36% 23%
Ghost writing 32% 61% 29% 23%
Sharing/pooling of notes 23% 30% 31% 14%
Use of anonymous sources 76% 85% 72% 74%
Reporters as columnists 19% 42% 21% 9%
Pay for public appearances 27% 42% 35% 17%
Doug Anderson, "Sports Coverage in Daily Newspapers," Journalism Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3 (Autumn 1983), pp. 497-500.
APSE ethics guidelines. Available at: http://apse.dallasnews.com/main/codeofethics.htl.
Box scores and bylines: A snapshot of the newspaper sports page. Report published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (2005). Available at: http://www.journalism.org/node/50/
Gene Collier, "Freebies: Then and Now," Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 2000), p. 48.
Howard Cosell & Shelby Whitfield, What's wrong with sports. (1991). New York; Simon & Schuster.
Bruce Garrison & Michael Salwen, "Newspaper Sports Journalists: A Profile of the 'Profession,'" Journal of Sport & Social Issues, vol. 13, no. 2 (1989), pp. 57-68.
Marie Hardin, "Survey Finds Sports Departments Differ in Approach to Ethical Codes and Decision Making," Newspaper Research Journal, vol. 26, no. 1 (2005), pp. 66-72.
Robert Andrew Powell, "Sex scandals, stadium sponsors, national TV and more reasons to boycott big-time high-school football." Slate (Sept. 17, 2007).
Michael Salwen & Bruce Garrison, "Survey Examines Extent of Professionalism in Sports Journalism," Editor & Publisher, vol.127, no. 3 (15 January 1994,) pp. 54-56.
Michael Salwen & Bruce Garrison, "Finding Their Place in Journalism: Newspaper Sports Journalists' 'Professional Problems,'" Journal of Sport & Social Issues, vol. 22, no. 1 (1998), pp. 88-102.
Joe Strupp, "Sportswriter who broke '98 McGwire 'andro' story slams steroid coverage." Editor & Publisher. Available at: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/article_brief/eandp/1/1000846462
Michael Vernellis, "What lies ahead? Future of sports media," Shreveport Times (12 August 2007), p. 1C.
Robert Weintraub, "Play (hard) ball! Why the sports beat must evolve," Columbia Journalism Review (Sept./Oct. 2007), pp. 14-16.