Is it ok for a sports reporter to have a favorite team?
Actually, it doesn’t matter whether it’s acceptable. It’s inevitable. But pressboxes in stadia everywhere have policies forbidding their occupants from expressing such preferences. So do organizations that practice sports journalism.
It basically works that way in all forms of newsgathering. Whether covering a game or a political race, a reporter’s story isn’t supposed to include information about which side he or she wants to win.
ESPN this past week issued a policy about how its staff should handle expressing their beliefs in public. Some of it had to do with political opinions specifically, with ESPners urged to “refrain from overt partisanship” and “avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.” They also directed personnel involved in the gathering of “hard news” to “refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders.”
Sports and politics often intersect, so if you want to maintain a perception of your journalists’ brands as neutral when it comes to reporting news, even sports news, such a policy might make sense. And certainly an organization’s leadership is allowed to decide what face it wants to present to the public. But is such a policy realistic or desirable?
Some of us grew up as Cowboys fans and will never have a Redskin on our fantasy football teams (that might be me). Some of us love the current president, others think he’s Beetlejuice, and still others question the whole notion of an imperial presidency without regard to who occupies the office. While being open-minded is a virtue, we all have our points of view.
The question then becomes, if I am reading a news story, am I better served knowing the writer’s predilections or not? Could knowing such information help me evaluate his or her credibility and get more value out of what I’m reading?
The issuance of ESPN’s policy came on the heels of a suspension of on-air personally Jemele Hill for “inappropriate” tweets, including one in which she suggested Donald Trump was a “white supremacist.” This is useful information for me as a viewer. It tells me that she has evaluated a man’s cumulative actions and statements and concluded they definitively indicate he wants one race to rule others. Whether I believe the evidence justifies her conclusion or not, it at least gives me an idea of how she conducts such analysis. Now when I watch her report on an issue of race and sport on the SportsCenter broadcasts she anchors, I have some idea of how thorough she would be in evaluating its nuances.
So I’d rather have access to a writer’s opinions, and today’s technology makes it more possible than ever. In the 19th century, when the only media in a given town might have been a daily newspaper, determining the biases of its publisher or reporters, and what facts they might have left out of a story, could have been challenging. Luckily, today’s competitive landscape means fact-checking exists through numerous publicly available primary and secondary sources. It also offers lots of opportunities for those reporting the news to help us understand their approaches through the likes of social media.
That goes for companies, too. ESPN has taken criticism for a perceived liberal bias, which it has denied. Perhaps there is no agenda there. But if there is, I’d prefer to know about it. I’d rather the company just said, “yes, this is what we think is right and we’ll be pursuing it.” If you think what you’re doing is the right thing, explain it and justify it.
On the few occasions when I’ve written a feature story for the Fort Worth Weekly, it was not off-limits to put my name in it and explain what I observed in the reporting process. According to my editor, Eric Griffey (disclosure: he signs my timesheets), the paper does try to maintain some air of neutrality without specifically telling writers what they must post on their own social media channels. He wrote: “We prefer our writers, news writers in particular, to avoid posting anything that includes their opinion on a news topic. Once they’ve weighed in on a topic – even in a quasi-public forum – they can no longer cover that topic.”
To be clear, I’m a blogger, not a journalist, so a lot of my work involves specifically expressing opinions and interpreting facts (mostly those on which others have done the primary reporting). But even for those whose main job is to simply report facts, I’d rather know their opinions. That can help an editor, too, know how to assign certain stories, as the Weekly’s policy implicitly acknowledges. If you think a reporter is so biased he or she won’t diligently gather all the information on a particular topic, use somebody else.
A lot of times you can surmise points of view based on how writers shape ledes, what details they prioritize, and how they use words like “but.” Why not just save me the trouble and let me know up front the facts about the reporters, too? Like, say, who their favorite teams are.