It's an easy story to do. In fact, it's an obvious one.
After Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem this weekend in protest of the country's treatment of people of color, it's natural for reporters to ask athletes they cover for their opinion on the protest. Since this has become a national story, it's natural for it to move beyond sports.
The headlines have been, to be frank, predictable.
"Like, it's an oxymoron ... disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out."— ESPN (@espn) August 30, 2016
"You've got to respect the flag."— ESPN (@espn) August 29, 2016
Victor Cruz weighs in on the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick: https://t.co/c99CiuM0qN
I may have missed it - if I have, please let me know so I can correct this - but I have not seen any active athletes come out on full support of Kaepernick's protest or position. (Jim Brown came out in support of Kapernick).
The coverage of this story is a fascinating, real-time framing experiment. Framing, in mass communication research, is the study of how stories are presented in the media, or how individual elements within stories are presented to increase the salience of the topic (Entman, 1993). In the same way that an actual frame shapes how we see a painting or photograph, a journalistic frame shapes how we see and understand a story.
Anecdotally, it seems that a lot of the coverage and commentary around Kaepernick is focusing on the means of his protest. The stories aren't about the issues raised but about his not standing for the anthem. The issue becomes "I defend what he says and his right to say it, but was this really the best way of doing it?" Writing on The Undefeated, Bomani Jones addressed this issue eloquently:
The easy question to ask is whether one agrees with Kaepernick’s manner of protest — thus allowing respondents to ignore the substance of his thoughtful, measured critiques. The most disingenuous answers tend to come from those who defend his right to ignore the national anthem while making sure the world knows there were better ways for him to make his point, while, of course, stopping short of addressing the point itself.
What interests me most about this story is the follow-up stories and how they are framed. This is not a case of news organizations searching for clickbait. These are the types of stories newspapers were doing long before the internet. Like I said, they are natural and easy stories to do. If a core value of journalism is that news is what people are talking about, then this is a story to follow up on.
However, I wonder about the impact of these stories on Kaepernick's protest. I wonder if the follow-up stories isolate Kaepernick and his protest.
This isn't done intentionally. Sports journalists aren't setting out to isolate Kaepernick or prove him wrong. They're just doing their jobs. They're asking players about a major story that is dominating the news. I believe most of the reporters are genuinely curious about other players' reactions.
But here's where journalistic norms come in. If two of the most primary news values are conflict (aka disagreements) and deviance (something outside the norm), then it's natural for reporters to focus on people who disagree loudly with Kaepernick. Ambivalence is not a great news value, especially not if one or more players voice strong disapproval of Kaepernick's actions. Those disapproving voices get amplified in the follow-up stories (because they fit the established news values), and I wonder how much that amplification inadvertently isolates Kaepernick and his position.
The point is not whether Kaepernick is right or wrong. We're grown ups. We're allowed to disagree.
The point is whether the way we as sports journalists cover a story effects public perception of the issues involved.