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DebAte-T-Q: The Role of Media in Sports with Rob Moseley

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In the last decade there has been a major shift in the production and distribution of the media market.  Many customers have moved from the local daily newspaper, to more national media markets, to online news sites to blogs and social networking to real time reporting online.

Recently, I wrote a post with my feelings about a perceived hypocrisy in some of the opinion pieces being put out lately.  Whether I was right or wrong in my accusations, it brings up an interesting point: What is the role of the media and journalism in sports these days?  The always objective and extremely talented Rob Moseley is going to help me figure this out.

Matt: Personally, I think media in general is nothing more than the medium I use to experience my favorite teams.  That medium can be the TV and its commentators, blogs, twitter, newspapers, etc.  When I chose to make use of one of these mediums I want accurate and informative reporting.  I think personal opinion should be held to a minimum or be clearly categorized in the op/ed section so I know what to expect when I'm there.

For example, nothing irritates me more than watching a college football game on Saturday and listening to 5 minutes of Bob Davie ramble on about what he would do in a "situation like this" and then the subsequent questioning of the coach for not following his advice.  Oh really Bob?  Is that how you amassed that stellar 19-16 record at Notre Dame your last 3 seasons?  Give me some context of what is happening on the field, tell me what certain situations are more important than others, but try and leave your opinion out of it.

For some of the quality we lose in blogs, online sites and twitter, at times I'd much rather have multiple accounts of what happened so I can make an informed opinion for myself instead of having to wade through one person's recount and try and decipher what is fact and relevant and what is supposition.

You also have the major problem with bias in the mainstream media.  And no I'm not talking about liberal versus conservative.  I mean those people that work under the guise of journalist and yet spend every moment on their radio show or word of their article editorializing.  It is impossible for them to remain objective.  And when they are called out on this bias they defend it with "they're a journalist" and they're just trying to report the facts. 

I find it very hard to see the word I not in quotations and believe the piece isn't opinion.  And so many writers move in and out of fact and opinion even within the same commentary that it's impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends.  It really makes you question the motivation of the author especially considering these are usually their most controversial columns.  Are they doing it just for the sake of controversy because they know it will drive web traffic or do they actually believe it?  If you really believe it, then why the shock when called out on it?  If you didn't want criticism of your article then don't put opinion in there in the first place.

Rob: As you noted in your opening, the media market has become extremely stratified in recent years due to the Internet. Consider the method by which most fans digest the developments of a college football game. First, they watch it, live or on TV, so they've got the basic facts down. If it's on TV, they're getting play by play and a little analysis from the primary TV guy, and then commentary and analysis from the commentator (which is Bob Griese's role, if I'm not mistaken; you're hating on him for doing exactly what his job description requires, though perhaps you wish his analysis were more schematic than big-picture). These days, the fan may also be on Twitter, where he or she goes for deeper insights into the developments in the game, but perhaps also some analysis and commentary, too, from a trusted voice, probably the team's beat writer (I hope!).

OK, now the game's over, and the fan is trolling message boards for fan reactions, and blog posts from traditional and "new" media (I'd put ATQ in the latter category) for even more perspective on the game. Here I disagree a little with one of your statements; the fan may be looking for more facts about the game at this point, sure, things he might have missed, but he's also trying to get a sense of what the results means in the big picture — what players stood out and what that means for their futures, what the final score might indicate about the team's chances the rest of the season, how it fits with other results from around the conference/country. Some of this requires the assimilation of basic information, like scores and standings, but the savvy fan was probably already checking those during the game using a smart phone. At this point, he's looking for people to put all of that into a nice tidy package -- what does it all mean?

As the night goes on, highlight packages begin appearing on television. The basic facts of the package are narrated as it runs, but as soon as it's over, the "talking heads" on ESPN and such get on to further analysis; why things went down the way they did, how it happened, and what it means for the future. By the end of the night, the fan has a really detailed picture of what exactly happened in the game. And only THEN, the next morning, does the newspaper arrive, with a bunch more photos to enjoy, and sidebars on potentially overlooked elements of the game, and a game story that attempts to go beyond what the fan already learned from SportsCenter, and also a column putting it all in perspective.

The stark fact is that most fans digest the basic details of a game while it's going on. And because TV and Internet coverage is so extensive, that could potentially include a TON of detail, all before the game is over. And so when the media offers coverage after the fact, it has to take all of that into account. The final score and basic statistics don't cut it anymore. Consumers already have that information. They want something more. For proof, look no further than the fact that all these various media are in business.

What we journalists count on is for fans to be savvy enough to recognize where in the food chain they're getting their information. If you're reading a newspaper, in print or online, are you reading a news reporter like me, or a columnist like Schroeder? If you're reading my work, is it a news story, or a blog post, which has more liberal guidelines as far as offering opinion? Journalists take for granted that readers are making those distinctions. If they're not, perhaps that's something we need to address in more constructive way.

Regarding the inclusion of too much "personal opinion," these days, even news stories now probably contain more analysis (which a journalist wouldn't consider biased opinion, but more like informed speculation) than some readers are comfortable with. I'll acknowledge that. But again, print writers are covering an event that has been over for hours, or days, or weeks, and need to provide a fresh perspective. It's what we can do to remain relevant in the digital age, in which the basic information we used to provide is no longer "news" by the time we provide it, in some cases.

The exception to this is long-form investigative pieces that shed light on new details that are hard to uncover. But those are expensive, and the revenue hit felt by the industry has resulted in less and less of that, as writers on smaller staffs thinned by layoffs simply scramble to cover each day's news as it happens rather than ignore it to dive into a larger project. You can complain about THAT all you want, and I'll agree, but the simple facts are that A) a lot of consumers these days don't want to pay for news, which is going to affect quality, and B) readers want news "now" and are incredibly impatient; hence, when something happens in college football, Andy Staples and Stewart Mandel and Pat Forde and Mark Schlabach and Dennis Dodd and Matt Hayes and Pete Thamel all have analysis stories published within an hour or two, putting pressure on us local guys to keep up with that time frame. Again, you can say all you want it would be better if writers were allowed more time to work, but the audience demands immediacy these days, and to suggest otherwise would be naive.

As for the motivation of columnists, I think it could be best described as wanting to set an intellectual tone, meaning steering the conversation. A columnist wants to be compelling, and thought-provoking. A columnist wants to be interesting. A columnist wants to have readers thinking and talking about his or her columns. That, and not "clicks" or "selling papers" or "getting headlines" is what drives most of them, I think. Most journalists are ideas people. They want to be recognized and respected for having original, compelling ideas that fans enjoy considering. And I don't think any of them mind being "called out" or questioned about their work; that would simply be evidence that they are indeed influencing the market for ideas on any given subject. But, figure that they spent some time coming to their conclusion before writing a column, and so will probably be ready and willing to defend it quite aggressively.

Editorializing IS journalism, by the way. It's just not straight news reporting. Again, these are distinctions we assume readers are making, and if they're not, that's probably at the root of any disconnect you perceive.

Matt:  First of all, I was talking about Bob Davie, ex Notre Dame coach.  Bob Griese is a different color commentator who let his personal opinions get him a swift kick in the pants on ESPN. 

As for the multitude of ways that fans partake and digest their favorite teams, I think I'm hearing you say that the role of media is to find its niche and then produce consistent, timely and quality pieces.  Whether that be tweets from their favorite reporter (nice plug by the way), blog posts or updates about ramifications of the game afterwards, game threads from their favorite blog site, or highlights from their favorite sports show.  The paper coming later adds insights from behind the scene, interviews that fans aren't privy to and sometimes a different perspective altogether about the greater meaning.  It's the fans job to take in as much from these outlets as they can, sift through the mass of information and come to their own conclusion about what they are reading or seeing.  I don't disagree with this.  Fans are media consumers and have a responsibility to make informed buying decisions about where to spend their time or money.

I just find it troubling that the lines between these mediums gets so easily blurred.  No, I have no idea exactly what liberal guidelines you have for a blog post versus a normal report.  I read your stuff because it's accurate, timely and quality.  Also, when does a highlight reel on ESPN go from factual reporting to driving a specific narrative?  If they decided to dedicate 55 minutes of their hour long show to SEC football and then spend 5 minutes at the end running through final scores from the night from the west coast, is that because they are playing to their viewership in the South or because they want to drive further ratings in their SEC game of the week?  I don't begrudge any media source from trying to make a few bucks by pandering to their base or creating a little controversy, I just think that the intentions of media outlets and the blurred lines between what is factual reporting and what is opinion based turns a bunch of media consumers off.

On top of that, because there is a lack of education and understanding by the consumer base, it makes it really easy to jump to conclusions about the intention of a writer or media figure when they do create controversy.  Let alone controversy about one of their favorite teams!  That doesn't mean it's right, but making the media the scapegoat for why someone doesn't want to hear something about their team is the path of least resistance for many fans.

Finally, the need for relevancy and providing a fresh perspective with such a saturation already in the marketplace will only continue to blur the lines greater and frustrate the consumer.  In my opinion the guys/gals that concentrate their craft on factual reporting and let their consistent quality content set the intellectual tone will be the successful ones long term, for reporters and columnist alike.

Rob: Davie, Griese, whoever. The point was, getting on color commentators for offering their commentary is tilting at windmills a bit, no?

I guess we need to come to an understanding about something: How are you defining "factual reporting"?

Let me try to root this in a real-life situation. Earlier this spring, I did a couple of blog posts on "Five players who stood out in the spring" on each side of the ball, something like that. Basically, guys who I thought had helped themselves quite a bit in April. For starters, that's the sort of thing I wouldn't have been free to do in the paper; it's not "straight news" as we call it, but more like commentary/analysis, which is what a blog is for in my mind (along with passing on news and links, etc.)

Anyway, to my larger point: How come nobody jumped all over my rear end for offering opinions in that case? Those weren't facts. Those were just my (informed) opinions. Did it turn readers off? To the contrary, I think they were appreciated. As are "opinion" pieces by guys like Canzano and Schroeder when they write positively about the Ducks' prognosis, which does happen, even if those don't draw as much attention as the others.

Where I think you're treading into dangerous waters here is, you only seem to take issue when a reporter/columnist offers analysis/commentary that puts Oregon in a negative light. Covering Kiko Alonso and not Mike Parker. Canzano casting doubts on this or that element of the program from time to time. Schroeder wading into the Willie Lyles situation.

If you're only going to make these points when it's to defend your team on the occasions that it might look bad to outside observers, the argument loses some of its merit.

...

There you have it.  Rob makes some excellent points with regard to the nuances between media members, judgments by the fans about the intentions of the media and fan responsibility when consuming media sources.  What are your thoughts?  I know there are a number of aspiring journalists on the site, and I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the role of media in sports today.