Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sports PR vs. sports journalism

Given the utter lack of independent media reports* on the MLS preseason, I figured now would be a good time as any to bring up an issue discussed during my Advanced News Writing class last semester.

(*By independent, I mean any reporting done by media not affiliated with MLSnet.com or any other official MLS club site.)

The question: will public relations eventually overtake journalism as the primary medium to which the public receives its information?

The line is certainly blurring. If you're in the Boston-metro region, just listen to WEEI, or read any local newspaper to discover that the vast majority of commentary surrounding the area's pro clubs is slanted favorably, rather than critically. Apparently, success breeds fondness in the journalistic arena as well.

Why is this? Well, it's easy. For starters, it's easy to say and print nice things when things are going great. It's human nature. But for journalists in particular, there's also the old saying: don't bite the hand that feeds you. With communications departments growing and newspapers dying, those very communication suits know they wield alot more power than they did twenty years ago. A lot more. A journalist who writes uncompromising columns may find his or her access to the team suddenly limited, thus making his or her job more difficult.

I've said it before. Although I'm sure the idea isn't especially original, I'll state it here anyway: sport success hampers critical sports journalism.

If a team is successful, the natural inclination is to report and emphasize on the spoils. The public wants it. The organization wants it, too. Because every inch of newspaper or white screen space that's filled with positives leaves less room for the negatives.

And there are negatives. Always. Even the most successful team has a collection of skeletons in its closets that it wants no journalist getting even the faintest sniff of. No organization, sports or otherwise, is squeaky clean. A good journalist will know where and how to find the negatives, if he or she is willing to give a critical account of any story. But he or she has to ask the questions 1. Will my editor approve?, and 2. How will this affect my relationship with the organization?

The second query is the most troublesome. Most editors have an understanding of the writer's plight. The truth, whether good or bad, is always out there. Even if that truth is ugly or unflattering, it does exist. A good editor will encourage his writers to find these truths, good, bad, or ugly.

The problem then becomes whether a piece will offend the organization, and if so, the consequences.

I can tell you from personal experience that some clubs employ the use of "special lists" comprised of journalists who receive "bonus" information aside from the general press releases. More often than not - though not all, mind you - these are the same journalists who essentially provide lip service on behalf of the organization. Spin control, if you will. Seven game slide? Not the coach's fault. It's injuries. Striker's embarrassing performance? Not his fault - he tweaked a hamstring. And so on.

Curiously, this is especially true in American soccer, despite the fact that the number of soccer journalists are easily surpassed by their colleagues in the Big Four. Why this is can only be attributed to the same personal and professional battles waged for the past 90 years.

So with the power clearly in the communications field, and more independent media dying by the day, what can journalists do?

Easy: the job that their profession calls for. I know that's blunt and oversimplified, and often difficult in a world where journalism's pulse seems to be growing fainter by the day. But all journalists, in theory, abide by a code - an ethical code we learned when many of us took our first journalism classes. It advises us to be, in a nutshell, thorough, honest, and accountable. Sometimes, those criteria clash with an organization's image. Tough.

For journalists, it all boils down to "what's easy" versus "what's right." It's easy to accentuate the positives. The organization will give you all the information you need, and then some. It's difficult, and sometimes torturous, to shed light on the negatives. Journalists often find little to no cooperation in those types of endeavors.

But the reward associated with abiding by that code, sticking to one's guns, and reporting on the truth gives any respectable journalist something that even the most fortressed PR department cannot take away: the personal satisfaction of a job well-executed.

5 comments:

The Soccer Source said...

We may have already passed the point you are talking about. How many quality independent outlets are there covering MLS? I think I can count them on one hand. Most MLS news these days is, sadly, press released from the league itself. There are a few good voices out there (Bell, Goff, Ives, Lewis) but they're rapidly being drowned out. Until somebody figures out how to make money on news, I'm afraid that's what we're going to be faced with.

BrianTheOC said...

I agree...especially with so many media outlets cutting their soccer coverage to cater to the Big Four. It's sad. You would think that MLS PR would reach out to the media to at least try to get a few more writers on board. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any concerted efforts to do so. It's really lose/lose for the people who actually care about soccer.

Anonymous said...

Four stories into the season and PR already threatened to cut my credentials for an easily justified observation.

Can I get some kind of award for this?

Phil said...

PHIL: Very interesting, but skewed perspective. Perhaps this is the environment in soccer, but it is certainly not the situation in hockey.

HOS: The question: will public relations eventually overtake journalism as the primary medium to which the public receives its information?

PHIL: I certainly hope the answer to this is a very loud “NO”. In this economy, does public relations have a greater role in assisting mainstream and internet media? Absolutely. As an example, we assist our media in making sure they get audio if they can’t cover an interview, but we don’t edit the audio.

HOS: The line is certainly blurring. If you're in the Boston-metro region, just listen to WEEI, or read any local newspaper to discover that the vast majority of commentary surrounding the area's pro clubs is slanted favourably, rather than critically. Apparently, success breeds fondness in the journalistic arena as well.

PHIL: Boston is one of the toughest media markets for scrutiny, without question. If WEEI tends to show some favouritism towards their sports teams, maybe there is some sincerity there. But, you cannot question the objectivity of the Globe and Herald.

HOS: Why is this? Well, it's easy. For starters, it's easy to say and print nice things when things are going great. It's human nature. But for journalists in particular, there's also the old saying: don't bite the hand that feeds you. With communications departments growing and newspapers dying, those very communication suits know they wield alot more power than they did twenty years ago. A lot more. A journalist who writes uncompromising columns may find his or her access to the team suddenly limited, thus making his or her job more difficult.

PHIL: I can say without hesitation that I would never refuse credential requests for a “journalist who writes uncompromising columns”. I would never get away with that – thank goodness. Our fans wouldn’t let us get away with that. We had incredible media coverage during our run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. But I can tell you, we’ve probably had much better and more extensive coverage this season and we may not even make the playoffs. Why is that? I believe it’s easier (not lazy) to write about a team when they are down then when they are doing well.

HOS: I've said it before. Although I'm sure the idea isn't especially original, I'll state it here anyway: sport success hampers critical sports journalism.

PHIL: I completely disagree (see my note above). The only difference with a successful team is that their season will usually be longer and it offers media a longer period to cover their ‘home-based’ team.

HOS: If a team is successful, the natural inclination is to report and emphasize on the spoils. The public wants it. The organization wants it, too. Because every inch of newspaper or white screen space that's filled with positives leaves less room for the negatives.

HOS: And there are negatives. Always. Even the most successful team has a collection of skeletons in its closets that it wants no journalist getting even the faintest sniff of. No organization, sports or otherwise, is squeaky clean. A good journalist will know where and how to find the negatives, if he or she is willing to give a critical account of any story. But he or she has to ask the questions 1. Will my editor approve?, and 2. How will this affect my relationship with the organization?

PHIL: Of course when a team is successful, fans want to know the whys and get inside the team. I also agree that there are always negatives that surround all teams. Just as there are always positives that surround unsuccessful teams. I cannot believe an editor would ever pull a negative story for fear of his relationship with the team. In our city, the media bosses/owners do not interfere with editorial. So you’re not going to get the publisher saying to their sports editor, “Hey, go easy on the team, we’re a sponsor of the team.”.

HOS: The second query is the most troublesome. Most editors have an understanding of the writer's plight. The truth, whether good or bad, is always out there. Even if that truth is ugly or unflattering, it does exist. A good editor will encourage his writers to find these truths, good, bad, or ugly. The problem then becomes whether a piece will offend the organization, and if so, the consequences.

PHIL: I have never in my 23 years in the business experienced this. The media’s only concern has been and should be if the story is true and can be backed up with identifiable sources.

HOS: I can tell you from personal experience that some clubs employ the use of "special lists" comprised of journalists who receive "bonus" information aside from the general press releases. More often than not - though not all, mind you - these are the same journalists who essentially provide lip service on behalf of the organization. Spin control, if you will. Seven game slide? Not the coach's fault. It's injuries. Striker's embarrassing performance? Not his fault - he tweaked a hamstring. And so on.

PHIL: I have never, ever had a ‘special list’ of media who will receive scoops or favouritism. I will go to great lengths to make sure media get any news we have at the same time. If by some chance, a journalist works hard and gets the story, all the power to him. But even at that, we will not confirm anything until we make our announcement.

HOS: Curiously, this is especially true in American soccer, despite the fact that the number of soccer journalists are easily surpassed by their colleagues in the Big Four. Why this is can only be attributed to the same personal and professional battles waged for the past 90 years.

PHIL: Interesting perspective.

HOS: So with the power clearly in the communications field, and more independent media dying by the day, what can journalists do?

Easy: the job that their profession calls for. I know that's blunt and oversimplified, and often difficult in a world where journalism's pulse seems to be growing fainter by the day. But all journalists, in theory, abide by a code - an ethical code we learned when many of us took our first journalism classes. It advises us to be, in a nutshell, thorough, honest, and accountable. Sometimes, those criteria clash with an organization's image. Tough.

PHIL: I hope, for the success of professionally-trained journalists, that they continue to search out and report on all stories.

HOS: For journalists, it all boils down to "what's easy" versus "what's right." It's easy to accentuate the positives. The organization will give you all the information you need, and then some. It's difficult, and sometimes torturous, to shed light on the negatives. Journalists often find little to no cooperation in those types of endeavours.

PHIL: It’s the journalist’s ‘job’ to report on the news – positive, negative or neutral. It’s the public relations professional role to put his organization in the best light possible and to protect it. Of course the p.r.p. will try to minimize the reporting of any negative stories. It is not a question of cooperation, but who you work for. And any p.r. professional worth their salt will treat all media with the same respect, regardless of the story.

HOS: But the reward associated with abiding by that code, sticking to one's guns, and reporting on the truth gives any respectable journalist something that even the most fortressed PR department cannot take away: the personal satisfaction of a job well-executed.

PHIL: “reporting on the truth” – I cannot agree with you more. Thanks for this great conversation.

BrianTheOC said...

Phil:

Wow. Just, wow. That was awesome. Comment of the Year so far.