May 9, 2005, 10:16 AM EDT
In TV news, there’s a saying that goes, “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that reports on violence grab viewers. I can’t come up with a similar, Jesse Jackon-esque catch phrase for it, but I’ve found out that nothing grabs the interest of the readers of this blog quite like a story about media coverage of the Redskins. I get more emails, see more message board responses, and generate more page hits on articles about the Redskins and the press or, more accurately these days, the Redskins vs. the press, than I do about any other subject. It’s not even close.
And there’s a clear pattern to the tone of the comments I receive. When I’m critical of the coverage of the team, the vast majority of the messages are of the “right on, you tell ‘em” variety. If I am perceived as taking the side of Big Media, I suddenly become a moron. Even somebody as dense as I can be sometimes can see that there is a high level of discontent with the state of Redskins coverage by the media.
The comments about the most recent article about the media that appeared here on Sunday fall into a few main categories.
One is the use of anonymous sources. Some find it unsettling to hear negative reports about the team based on the words of people who won’t identify themselves. There’s a certain slimy quality to that, to be sure. If you’ve got something to say, stand up like a man and say it.
Still, anonymous sources are Journalism 101. In fact, they go back earlier than that. An anonymous source probably reported that it was the serpent that talked Eve into taking the bite out of the apple.
There are a lot of reasons why “sources” talk to reporters. They may have an ax to grind with a particular person, they may be trying to push an initiative that they favor along, they may do it as a personal favor to a reporter that they like. They may just want to get what they perceive to be The Truth out there. There is, however, only one reason why sources speak to reporters on the condition of anonymity–to keep their jobs. You can’t go telling tales out of school and expect to remain employed.
So, regardless of motivation, the source tells the reporter something on the condition of anonymity and the paper or broadcaster has a choice–report it or not. This is where things get vague. We hear about double checking and trying to find a second source for some stories but the general public really doesn’t know what the standard is for deciding whether or not the Post, for example, runs with a particular story based on anonymous sources.
If the Post–or any other reporting entity–wants to improve its credibility, it should put up a boilerplate page on its Website explaining the standard procedure it goes through before deciding to print a sports story that relies heavily on anonymous sources. Are multiple sources required or merely preferred? If the team denies the story, what is the standard for the decision to either print it and carry the team’s denial or kill it? It would also be wise to give us a definition of the various levels of sources. Sometimes, for example, a source is characterized as a “team source” and at others it’s a “team official. Exactly where is the line drawn?
If we had that information, we could better judge the credibility of a given story. To take it to an extreme, if a “source” could be a grounds keeper who overheard a conversation but an “official” can be only Gibbs, Snyder, or Cerrato, that would certainly help us figure out how much credence to put into a story.
The paper must have a policy, something in writing that defines the threshold for running a story and a standard way that anonymous sources are characterized in print. Giving full disclosure of that policy (a standard that the paper certainly would expect of another institution) would serve its readership well.
Another broad category of complaints have to do with reporters having an “agenda” to run the team down or to run some individuals down by focusing on the negative and by revealing secrets that damage the team.
Certainly, one can detect an arrogance of power on the part of the Post and the Times on occasion and it’s likely that, in the short term, stories can take a slant that is intended as payback for personal slights, real or imagined. Still, I have a difficult time in swallowing the notion, as some have implied, that there is some sort of long-term agenda in place that has the purpose of making the Redskins less successful. There are too many compelling business reasons for a paper to see a team become successful. A winning team peaks interest and drives circulation and website hits. If the Redskins go to the Super Bowl, the newspaper’s headline is emblazoned on t-shirts and coffee mugs, commemorative books and special editions get sold. Broadcast media’s numbers go through the roof and the announcers
And every reporter who I’ve heard offer an opinion has said that it’s simply more enjoyable to cover a team that’s winning. Who wouldn’t rather spend all day talking with people who are happy and successful rather than ones who are losing? Why would any publication, in the long haul, have a vested interest in beating down the team it covers?
I’ll concede that I’m perhaps being naive here and that there is some compelling reason for the Post or the Times or WTEM to see the Redskins be unsuccessful. If anyone out there could educate me on this, my email address is at the top of the page.
Other comments dealt with the Redskins.com “unfiltered” campaign. Some thought it was great and that it was all the Redskins news they needed. Others were more suspicious, wondering how any organization can be counted on to accurately and thoroughly report on itself.
Those who are willing to make Redskins.com their sole or primary Redskins news source need to realize that what their getting is far from unfiltered, with one exception. The audio broadcasts of news conferences are good, raw information, but content such as that constitutes only a small percentage of what goes up on Redskins.com. The canned interviews and stories written by staff members are not news, they are PR. Such material can be interesting and even informative, but it’s not unfiltered, it’s just a different filter, a different agenda, if you will.
Again, don’t get me wrong here, the additional content and information that Redskins.com seemingly intends to provide are very welcome. And I certainly don’t expect that the Redskins should release negative information about themselves. If they did, they would be among the first privately-owned company in history ever to do so. The materials should just be read, viewed, and listened to for what they are.
The future of Redskins.com was an interesting sidebar subject that other readers discussed. The speculation was that it would soon turn into a pay site, with subscribers getting access to the best clips, interviews, and “news” tidbits. My initial thought was that the Redskins couldn’t do something on their own, that in the collective that is the NFL everyone would have to be on the same program.
And then I got some information that indicated that the rest of the NFL was headed in the same direction. From Doug Farrar, the editor-in-chief of Seahawks.net, the Seattle sister site of WarpathInsiders.com, on changes on that team’s website:
In the last three months, they hired Mike Brown, the former sports director of KJR, our local sports-talk radio station, to do all the “official news”. They do breaking news via streaming video and also hired Mike Kahn, formerly an Executive Editor at CBS Sportsline, to run op-ed pieces three times a week that innocuously spin the team view of things.
So perhaps the league is pushing teams towards moving into the concept of being news sources on their websites.
As if the Redskins needed any pushing.
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