Saturday, August 30, 2008

The slow demise of objectivity?

As a soccer writer based in the Northeast region of a country that already has four other sports to worship, watch, and play, there's a great perk to covering soccer. The accessability to soccer players is, bar none, much greater than your run of the mill Major League Baseball player or NFL hero, and thus, far easier to report on.

I'm sure it's not just like this in New England. I'm willing to bet that the large majority of news you read about soccer - specifically, MLS - is nowhere near as "restrained" as it is in other pro sports. Because soccer still has a few mountains to climb in acquiring the enormous popularity that the NFL and MLB enjoy, the obsessive fanbase in each of these sports has not forced the hand, so to speak, of media outlets to become veritable bedpartners with the teams they cover.

Recently, I stumbled upon a site that highlighted a radio interview given by some of its players. I won't name names because I'm not here to call people and/or entities out. Anyway, the station, to my knowledge, has no affiliation to the team. Maybe this doesn't strike you as odd, but to me, it forces me to question the objectivity of the station.

I'm sure this isn't an isolated incident. Many media outlets partner up with teams in order for the outlet to provide "exclusives coverage", and the team to get its name to flood the airwaves and ink.

With that being, I'm going out on a limb, and take it one step further, and say that since I know of no such partnership between MLS and a major media outlet, that soccer reporting in the United States may very well be the most pure and objective form of journalism - on the whole - in professional sports right now. And I mean no disrespect to baseball, football and other sports reporters at all. There are many excellent reporters who cover sports outside of soccer. But I bet if you asked them if there was a growing concern regarding objectivity in this age of media and sports marriages, some of them would anonymously give an affirmative answer.

It will only be a matter of time before this union of media and sports teams pervades America's take on the beautiful game. You see, the very essence of journalism is to present the facts in a fair and balanced way. It's what I've always been told by my journalism professors and by fellow journalists as well. We, as journalists, are to keep a healthy distance from the subjects we cover in order to uphold the high degree of fairness an objectivity we owe to the profession.

Now, some may argue that, as human beings, this is impossible. All of us harbor a unique combination of feelings and viewpoints toward any given topic. The war in Iraq. The presidential races. OPEC. Yet, somehow, these issues can often be covered and then delivered in a fair and balanced fashion by good journalists who uphold the standards.

But what happens when media outlets unapologetically align themselves with the clubs they cover? What happens when print, radio, or the internet form visible associations with your favorite teams? What happens when a regional sports media outlet is featured on an official team website? Again, I won't name either party because it's not my place.

I'll tell you what happens: goodbye, objectivity. Adios, full story. Because, in this day and age where Josh Beckett's arm is bigger news than an impending Category Four hurricane, the media has not only catered to the teams to they cover, but is quickly becoming de facto public relations outfits for many of these teams. Because publications recognize that sports is one of the few money-making subjects, the journalistic standard sacrifices some of its soul in order to keep these very teams on its good graces.

However, the blame cannot rest squarely on the media itself. It's an unfortunate truth that many print outlets are losing money faster than the federal government. Internet media is swallowing up print at an alarming rate. So the print publications have to do something, and one thing they seem all to happy to do is bend over backwards to the outfits that give them a considerable appeal: sports teams.

And the clubs - boy, are they sly. Because they know they wield considerable power, they control the information given to reporters. It's really become the pinnacle of PR in sports nowadays, where communications directors often cut and splice, twist and contort information like a presidential press officer. The age in which a curious or determined beat reporter would dig up a story, present it in fair light, and send it off to his/her editor is quickly going the way of the dinosaur. Even long-time Providence Journal sports columnist Jim Donaldson mentioned this very idea in regards to his coverage of Patriots training camp. You cannot simply approach a player after practice, or in any other similar fashion, without full clearance from media relations. In other words, the claw of many sports PR departments has taken unprecedented steps to smother any chance of "unflattering" leaking into the sports page or world wide web.

The fact is that the large portion of the sports news you hear is a rehash of a events outlined in a press release. Because print media is operating at lower costs than ever before, jobs are being cut, and writing chores are being delegated to the "surviving" writers. Needless to say, writers inherit additional deadlines, and the time to do true investigative journalism wanes more and more with each passing fiscal year. Budgets must be met, and the cost of ink, nor the cost of the materials necessary to put together a newspaper or magazine, aren't bucking the trend of inflation.

As print media continues to struggle, the quality of reporting on the whole has slowly withered. Don't blame the writers - they, just like the companies they work for, are just trying to make a living and get by. It's a game. Yet, the relationship between media and clubs is becoming far too cozy nowadays, especially in New England where a rabid fanbase will ingest anything sports related.

Fans shouldn't panic too much, though. They'll still get game stories, some interesting tidbits, and some well-written columns and features. Just don't expect to be given the full story of your favorite team's starting pitcher or first-string quarterback anytime soon.

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