Sports writer Mitch Albom was disciplined in May, 2005 for writing-in an April 3 column, "Longing for another slice of dorm pizza," for the Detroit Free Press-as if certain events at the NCAA men's Final Four basketball tournament had occurred when they actually had not. Albom obviously had written under the assumption that these events would take place when his column reported that former Michigan State basketball players Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson were in attendance for the Spartans' semifinal game with North Carolina in St. Louis. As it turned out, they were not at the game.
Albom's reportorial pratfall points to two major problems for today's sports journalists: (1) what I call "the over-extension of the self-converged practitioner in a world of expanding media technology," and (2) the tolerance of unacceptable news practices in the sports department, practices forbidden in the news department, creating a double standard. An inquiry by the Free Press into the Albom situation revealed these problems with this column: (a) a journalist writing as if he were in a place when he wasn't; and (b) his neglecting to note accurately the source of information and quotations.
"We've all had to do something at least remotely related to what Mitch did," says Bob Ryan, sports columnist for The Boston Globe. "However, would the piece have been diminished had he simply said, 'They were hoping to be there,' or 'They were making every effort to be there'? The answer is no. The point was how much each loved the college experience. But Mitch needed to bring us all that rich Albomy detail and couldn't hedge. My guess is that next time he'll hedge."
Let me specify that I respect Albom, especially for his work on his five-day-a-week talk show on radio station WJR. I read his columns occasionally on the Free Press web site and have seen many of his frequent appearances on ESPN's weekly The Sports Reporters. If nothing else, I admire him for standing as a balance to what a friend of mine refers to as the Northeast bias of The Sports Reporters. Albom provides a heartland perspective.
My perception of Albom has been that he is a journalist first and that he upholds high professional standards. Thus, these April revelations, given Albom's high reputation, were especially disturbing.
"It's not like the guy just went up for seconds at the media buffet," said Jeff Darlington, sports writer for the Orlando Sentinel. "This, in most sports writing circles, was a far more difficult mistake to accept. Sports writers, compared to most typical news reporters, get plenty of freedom when it comes to crafting stories. We can find ways to inject our opinions in an otherwise objective article. We can be far more creative with the English language, twisting phrases far more liberally. But two golden rules should always be followed, no matter who you are. Never copy someone else's work. And never write about something you assumed to have happened. That's where Albom went wrong. He assumed something. That, in terms of the unwritten rules, might be one of the worst decisions a sports writer can make."
What happened in this case of journalistic sloppiness-to be charitable about labeling it-hinges in part on self-convergence. What is self-convergence? It's when individual media practitioners work across media platforms; that is, provide stories for print, television, radio and the Internet. My untested hypothesis is that, as the individual media practitioner intensifies his or her level of self-convergence, his or her professional performance becomes strained. This is not to say that everybody who practices self-convergence lowers his or her performance, but for most as the level of self-convergence increases, I think both performance and standards have a greater tendency to be compromised.
Self-convergence need not necessarily earn its practitioners ill fame. After all, productivity is an overwhelmingly American philosophy for success, and Albom is a prolific writer.
In his first column after the Free Press reinstated him, the Detroit columnist said that perspective is the lesson of this incident. If that is the lesson, then I hope that Albom and the Free Press, as well as other sports departments around the country, have a new position on being honest about how a story is reported.
"What he was suspended for would be so easy to do, getting assurances from people who say they are going to do something and reporting it to meet a deadline that falls before that particular something," said Justin Hill, sports editor of the Hampton (Iowa) Chronicle. "Since the Albom thing, I've been in a few situations that reminded me of Mitch since a weekly's lead time is so great, and you have to balance that with trying to be current. So what he did really didn't bother me so much. I was ready to forgive that, but now that it's come out about his not naming sources or lifting quotes from other new services without giving credit, I'm bothered. Even more so when he dismisses it by saying it's more important to get the quote right regardless of where it came from, and having his publisher defend him by saying he wasn't aware of the newspaper's policy. Policy or no policy, citing sources is Reporting 101 isn't it?"
It is, and Albom is a skilled journalist. He has been named both the top sports writer and columnist by Associated Press Sports Editors. Using a quote that he did not obtain himself, without attribution to another source, doesn't reflect well on his professional standards.
"Albom, like so many other sports writers, has devoted his life to his work," Darlington said. "He is passionate. He is diligent. He is a workaholic. Otherwise, he wouldn't have escalated so high in our profession. But once you get to the top, you can never slow down. You can never get lazy. I fear that Albom wore himself too thin. I fear he had too many things going on, a position that caused him to try to take shortcuts. While Albom is not a lazy man, he made one of the laziest moves of all-he assumed. So what can we learn? No matter how hard we might work to get what we want out of life, it's not going to be any easier once we actually get there. If anything, the job will become more demanding."
Tom Sorensen, sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer, said professional cachet helped Albom keep his job at the Free Press.
"Had he not developed a reputation, had he not been established, he might have lost his job," Sorensen said. "I'm not sure why he wrote it the way he did. Obviously, he wanted detail, so he wrote, based on what he knew, what was going to happen. It was a major gamble, and he lost. I know of nobody else that does this. It's too risky. It was a sin, but certainly not one for which I would fire an established writer unless I was trying to make an example of him."
Jeff Walker of the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal, said newspapers tend to be pretty merciful in general and figures this came into play in the Albom case.
"Short of plagiarism, this business is very forgiving with its writers," Walker said. "It takes an awful lot for a writer to get fired. Writers can routinely get beat, they can get stories wrong or just do a crappy job of covering their beat, and they still won't lose their job."
Melvin Mencher, professor emeritus at Columbia University, said Albom took an unnecessary chance. "We used to call that in poker betting on the outcome," said Mencher, who taught Albom at Columbia. "Of course, you don't do that. The usual blooper is when you are sitting at a speech with the prepared text and dozing off and not catching a departure from the text that would be the lead. The lesson is always the same: Shoe-leather reporting leads to reliable, accurate stories. You have to be there, see, smell, hear and feel it yourself."
As for self-convergence, it needs further review. While you can't blame Albom for transgressions associated with self-convergence, you can say that this case study illustrates the ethical dangers. Nonetheless, I hope this episode has caused him and other journalists, self-converged or not, to examine whether or not they're stretched too thin and whether their stories are compromising accuracy for flair, especially when that flair is snared on a computer rather than on the playing field or court.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1),pp.6,18-19.