How I used Jason Isbell to teach feature writing

My sports writing and reporting students at SUNY Oswego are working on their final projects, in which they are supposed to write a longer-form enterprise story on an event, topic or issue that interests them.

And to teach them a valuable lesson about feature writing, I tuned to Jason Isbell.

The lesson here is not just the vividness of Isbell’s writing, his use of details or the simplicity of his language — although he’s among the best lyricists in music today.

The lesson is what’s not in the song.

There’s no solution.

There’s no answer. Isbell’s narrator in “Last of My Kind” doesn’t try to solve the problem, or make big proclamations about the state of the world, his place in or or about how to fix the world. The song is an observation of the faded pictures in his mind.

This is a valuable tool for young writers. Too often, I’ve read stories where my students feel like they have to take a stand on the issue they are reporting. They feel like they have to take a side. Or they feel like their job is to present a solution to the issue they’re writing about. They feel compelled to offer a solution.

That’s not often true. Just because you are writing a story about an issue doesn’t mean you have to solve it. Those solutions can feel forced and make the writing feel labored. It can also lead to bad reporting habits, where a young writer only looks for evidence that supports their point of view.

Sometimes, the real power in reporting can come from simply observing a situation and writing what you observe in clean, clear, evocative language.

The Athletic and the importance of diversity in sports journalism

There was an important Twitter thread today from Gregory Lee Jr., the former President of the National Association of Black of Journalists.

Equally important was The Athletic’s response:

This is not a “Bash The Athletic” post. In the most recent APSE Race and Gender Report Card (which, inexplicably, is from 2014):

  • • 91.5 percent of the sports editors were white.
  • • 83.5 percent of the columnists were white.
  • • 85 percent of the reporters were white.
  • • 90.1 percent of the sports editors were men.
  • • 87.6 percent of the columnists were men.
  • • 87.4 percent of the reporters were men.

This is an industry-wide problem. Sports journalism needs to become more diverse if it is going to survive and thrive.

There’s a video clip I always show my students when we talk about diversity in journalism.

It has nothing to do with journalism, or the news media.

It’s about Saturday Night Live.

he value of diversity is not that it’s the right thing to do (although it is). It’s not about checking a box, or righting historical wrongs.

The value of diversity is you tell better stories. You serve your community better - your entire community. You expose your audience to different voices, to people who may not look like most of them, to new ideas and worldview. That is the heart of the open marketplace of ideas. SNL suffered from its lack of diversity not for a grand social reason, but because it was unable to do skits and make fun of Oprah Winfrey for years.

It is impossible to be involved in media at any level in 2018 and not think of diversity. From the #MeToo movement, to the growing representation of women in action movies, to the way reporters cover the white supremacist movement emboldened by the 2016 election, to the protests before NFL games, diversity is at the center of what we do.

As media producers, and indeed as media consumers at this very moment, we have enormous power and responsibility to seek out diverse opinions and diverse stories, that a key part of their jobs is to be respectful and to listen to underserved and misrepresented populations.

That’s the challenge for The Athletic and all sports media. To become more diverse.

It’s also our biggest opportunity

Team journalists and female reporters (Research Wednesday)

Welcome to research Wednesday, a regular feature in which I look at noteworthy and interesting sports media-related research and scholarship.

Today’s Research Wednesday looks at studies from recent issues of Journalism Practice and the Journal of Sports Media.

“I Did What I Do” Versus “I Cover Football” by Michael Mirer (Journalism Practice, 2018, 12, 3)

One of the most interesting developments in sports journalism in the past decade has been the growth of team and league websites as news sources and the hiring of sports journalists by those sites. The journalists often act as “team journalists,” which to traditionally minded sports reporters sounds like an oxymoron but has increased the amount of information available to fans and readers.

Michael Mirer, a friend and future collaborator of mine, has made these issues the focus of his research agenda. His most recent article uses in-depth interviews to examine how journalists working for team sites covered on-field protests during the fall of 2014. These protests included the St. Louis Rams players who walked onto the field with the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” pose, Cleveland Browns’ players wearing shirts in support of Tamir Rice and John Crawford, and Reggie Bush and several NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts.

Mirer found two distinct attitudes among the team journalists. One he describes as “I cover football,” is the attitude the reporters for the NFL teams had — that they are sports journalists and that their job is to cover the game. One reporter said, “Those are primarily things that I leave alone because they don’t have much to do with what’s going on on the field. My job is to be a football reporter.” Another writer in this camp said, "I cover football. I write about football.” The other attitude, from several NBA team journalists, covered the protests as part of their stories. One of the writers in this camp said, “I did what I do, which is I see a storyline and I report and then I write it. Then I send it to the people who disseminate things through the website.”

The clear difference between the coverage on NFL and NBA sites is interesting and ripe for further study, as is the fact that the stories minimized the controversial aspects of the protest (which would be interesting to look at this past fall’s protests in the same light. Mirer found that the team journalists always defended their decisions as proper journalistic ones made with journalistic considerations in mind.

The redefining of journalistic values for use by in-house reporters supports the claim that boundary work is occurring. It suggests that maintaining membership in the professional community comes with status that these workers seek to protect. Using journalistic values to defend those choices serves as a means of asserting authority over sports news and claiming credibility. Yet the reframing of journalistic values and practices may have the effect of neutering journalism’s skeptical stance toward other institutions. In this way, the rise of brand content in sports could have far-reaching consequences for the press. It potentially reshapes the power dynamics between sports teams and the press in ways that could be exported to the political media.

”Looking On From the Sideline: Perceived Role Congruity of Women Sports Journalists” by Michael Murdick and Carolyn Lin (Journal of Sports Media, 2017, 12, 2)

How do readers judge female sports reporters?

Do readers believe that women can cover a traditionally men’s sport as well as a man? Do readers assume that because a woman is attractive, she is not knowledgeable about sports?

These are the big question that Murdick and Lin examine in this fascinating experimental study. They had 328 individuals read mock newspaper stories about either a college football or college volleyball team, written by either a male or female journalist (with a headshot) of either high or low physical attractiveness. The participants then answered a series of scale questions that measured their perceptions of the reporters’ trustworthiness, expertise, and physical attractiveness.

In testing several hypotheses, the researchers found: • Readers felt that females were a better fit for covering a female-appropriate sport than a predominantly male one. Likewise, male reporters were viewed as better fits for covering male-appropriate sports. • There was a significant relationship between the journalists’ physical attractiveness and reader loyalty. • There was also an interaction effect between sport type and reporter gender on reader loyalty — but only for male reporters covering a male-appropriate sport.

This study is among the first to assess the potential impact of gender and physical attractiveness of print sports reporters and the gender-typed sport that they cover on audience perception of their credibility. … In particular, the current study revealed that females employed in sports media who cover sports that are perceived to be male appropriate are seen as incongruent with the rugged characteristics of those sports.

One of the notable findings of the study was that women were not perceived to untrustworthy or lacking in expertise in covering football, which suggests an evolution in audience attitudes toward female sports reporters. However, that is somewhat mitigated by the fact that this study looked at print sports reporters, not broadcast ones.

Our findings suggest that physical attractiveness is an important characteristic for print sports reporters in the news platforms online, despite their lack of regular face time on a big television screen. However, as print news has undergone a convergent shift and become part of sports media organizations’ multimedia platform, all newspaper websites now contain news videos. It is not uncommon to see “print” journalists performing video features that are showcased as online content.

*The great thing about research is that everyone has a different view on what they read. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Post a comment on Twitter (@bpmoritz) or on Facebook.