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Sports journalism and public relations: The increasingly fuzzy line

April 28, 2010

An interesting discussion is happening over at one of my favourite hockey blogs, Kent Wilson’s Five Hole Fanatics, and at David Staples’s blog at the Edmonton Journal. Freelance blogger and journalist-turned-blogger both ask a key question (implicitly or explicitly): does having access to the Oilers or Flames locker rooms actually result in valuable analysis?

The answer, according to Wilson, is a decided meh.

This discussion overlaps with a case study I finished last week for my media ethics class where I talked about the somewhat incestuous relationship between sports journalists and PR. Do sports journalists (or other journalists) maintain a healthy enough distance from their subjects?

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Sports coverage is not exactly known for its hard-hitting investigative journalism.

Katie Stein (Flickr CC)

A sports reporter, more often than not, is a curmudgeonly homer with an affection for puns and classic rock references. Occasional criticism of a local team may involve a question or two about management or coaching decisions, but that’s a rarity. Part armchair coach, part booster, sports reporters pump stories full of quotes and do what they can to keep fans watching, listening, reading.

Teams, in turn, carefully cultivate this relationship to mutual benefit. It’s rare when a sports journalist breaks a story about troubled team dynamics, but equally rare when pundits step out of line and are denied access. When CBC’s Ron Maclean was critical of the on-ice theatrics of Vancouver Canuck Alexandre Burrows, the Canucks refused interviews with CBC the next week. Such incidents are few and far between.

Beyond the obvious symbiosis, the relationship between press and professional sports is often cozier than commonly known.

An editor at the Vancouver Courier did a double take last February while attending a Canucks game. Lisa Smedman noticed Shane Foxman, the CBC TV sports reporter for Vancouver, working the jumbotron crowd, pumping up ‘Nucks fans to yell their signature, “Luuuuuuuuu.” By day, Foxman covered the team for CBC, but was moonlighting with the club as an announcer and commercial break entertainer.

She was perplexed at the apparent conflict of interest. How could he be objective in his reporting on the Canucks while essentially working in their PR department?

Smedman – a prolific science fiction and fantasy writer who has only occasionally worked as a journalist – has a bit of an outsider vantage point on the big journalism outlets. As a result, she ran with the ethical conundrum in the pages of the Courier, repeatedly indicating her discomfort with Foxman’s dual role:

Does this mean CBC news anchor Ian Hanomansing could moonlight for the Board of Trade or VANOC? Or Ron Maclean for the Leafs? Foxman does a fine job on the CBC, but shouldn’t even the appearance of a conflict of interest be a concern?

She approached the local CBC for clarification and was rebuffed. The BC news director didn’t see a conflict in the situation. There’s a clear distinction between sports and news, she was told; Foxman’s part-time gig could be positive for CBC news ratings, since a more recognizable TV personality is a better draw for local viewers.

These kinds of curious relationships are not isolated to a single broadcaster or medium. A few months after the Courier article, the Olympics offered further examples of apparent conflicts of interest. CTV reporters took flack for running lengths of the torch relay, awkwardly stepping into the story they used to only cover.

A lesser known kerfuffle happened when Tyee reporter Andrew Macleod broke a story about Jeff Lee, Olympic reporter for the Vancouver Sun. Despite his full-time assignment of covering an international event with only a slim majority of local approval, Lee collected payment for a feature article written for the IOC’s magazine. The early 2009 editions of Olympic Report featured “Feeling the Buzz” a pillowy soft feature penned by Lee which chronicled ongoing preparations for the 2010 Olympics.

Jeff Lee speaking to the Pacific Pin Club in Vancouver

To underline the point that Lee’s piece was mere advertorial, Macleod quoted Lee’s piece and mentioned IOC chief Jacques Rogge’s foreword. Despite assuming a predominantly neutral tone in the rest of the piece, and allowing plenty of space for Lee to object and inject a final word, the result is the clear allegation of a conflict of interest (and a plea for disclosure of similar conflicts):

Wrote Lee, “In the six years since that moment in Prague, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), with Furlong still at its helm, has continued to move mountains, if not literally then certainly figuratively.”

Corporate sponsors have brought “financial muscle” to the organization, venues have been built on time, buyers have snapped up tickets and the games include economic and cultural opportunities for indigenous people, he found.

“More importantly, Canada as a country adopted the message of the Olympic movement as a unifying force for humankind through sports.”

Doctors may be the worst patients, but journalists can clearly make for poor interviews. Lee didn’t help his case with his response. Obviously annoyed that his journalistic integrity was being called into question, Lee turned defensive and snarky. He scolded Macleod for a “bullshit” accusation of impropriety, called it a “cheap shot,” “mischief making,” and an “attack story” before the article had even been posted. In his own defense, he insisted his editors had been okay with the piece and that his relationship with VANOC was duly strained due to less than flattering coverage in the Sun. After the online article appeared, Lee popped up in the comment section, lambasting anonymous readers for not actually owning up to their criticism of his integrity.

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These two stories had several common features. Both Foxman and Lee were called in question for using specialist knowledge to sell cheerleading services on a freelance basis. Both had the blessing of employers who didn’t believe the outside work affected their daily coverage.

The Courier and Tyee articles were also similar in construction and tone. Both were written by journalists at small media outlets criticizing senior journalists at major media organizations (with a history of trying to take on the big guys). Both invoked the opinions of “experts” who claimed there was a mild but preventable breech of trust. And both stories were framed in ways that portrayed a journalist in a conflict of interest.

But were either of these media types violating their journalistic allegiance to citizens? An interesting question with a less than obvious answer.

If you assume a covenant between journalist and the public, it seems a bit of a slam dunk. Given the choice to appear more or less ethical, it’s a no-brainer to err on the side of scruples. If the question is framed as whether or not to operate on both sides of the blurry line of press and PR? Again, slam dunk.

A mitigating factor in these stories, however, is the nature of the reporting. Because sports or entertainment reporting often involves semi-boosterism, there may be less of a public expectation of neutrality. The CBC sports reporter was singled out by Smedman partly because he works for the public broadcaster, which meant an additional set of expectations not typically demanded from other outlets. Foxman moonlights on the weekends as an announcer for the team, a local radio reporter performs the same task on weekdays. Smedman felt less of a breech of ethics for the radio persona.

But is there really much danger in sports reporters performing PR roles? Should the protection of integrity be the responsibility of the journalist or the media corporation informed about the freelance work? Smedman’s article raises these questions in another, analogous way. While it’s one thing for Foxman to plug the Canucks to paying customers, it might be different if Ian Hanomansing was working as a communications liaison for the Vancouver Board of Trade. But news anchors routinely appear as moderators or public speakers at corporate functions. When do these appearances become a violation of a public covenant? If I were to hazard a guess, I would argue that it depends on the job and the way in which the journalist presents themselves. In addition, politics seem a special case: journalists cross the line when they enter the political realm and side with a particular party. In any case, public figures run the risk of overexposure.

A second mitigating factor is the changing economic climate facing conventional journalism, means increased contract and freelance work. A sharp distinction between journalism and communications quickly disappears when you’re trying to make ends meet. In a freelance climate, journalists can see themselves not so much as truth-seeking servants of the public sphere, but as hired communicators serving the needs of corporate contract partners in exchange for a clearly delineated time and payment. The onus in freelance journalism shifts mostly to the media organization, which has to sell the integrity of its journalistic product. The public, meanwhile, increasingly must play a role in differentiating between types of information.

Regardless of whether Foxman and Lee are considered guilty of compromising their integrity, the too cozy relationship between press and sports may already be shaping the future of sports reporting. In the last five or so years, a proliferation of blogs have sprung up around most professional sports teams. Instead of relying on expensive access to athletes, legions of minimally-paid but passionate hockey bloggers rely on several advanced statistical methods of analysis which factor in possession, puck movement, chances, and quality of competition.

Communities of devoted fans form as lively discussion boards provide a high level of interaction with other passionate fans. Many assume that mainstream media (or “MSM,” that blogger’s cuss word) is too close to team machinations to provide sound feedback.

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