Welcome to research Wednesday, a new feature in which I look at noteworthy and interesting sports media-related research.
What is good sports journalism?
It’s the question that’s at the core of a new study, “Where’s all the ‘good’ sports journalism? Sports media research, the sociology of sport, and the question of quality sports reporting,” published by Gavin Weedon, Brian Wilson, Liv Yoon and Shawna Lawson in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport (2016).
As Weedon and his co-authors point out, so much of sports journalism research goes into pointing out bad sports journalism. Journalism that is, to use every academic’s favorite word, problematic. The kind that upholds racist stereotypes or hegemonic masculine power structures, that promotes xenophobic coverage of international sports or ableist, “inspirational” coverage of disabled athletes. But those don’t get at defining “good journalism” except in an implicit, definition-by-exclusion manner — don’t do this thing we’re writing about.
“Why are there so few advocations for ‘better journalism’ – And why so little attention to, or critical engagement with, the advocations that are offered?” (p. 17) the authors ask.
To examine this idea, they conducted a qualitative content analysis of eight academic journals that publish research into the sociology of sport. Of 347 articles studies, only 41 addressed what the authors defined as “explicit directives for individual journalists and sports media as an institution and a profession” (p. 12).
Those explicit directives include: “•More and/or more appropriately contextualized reporting • More critical media work and more balanced, unbiased and neutral reporting. • More equitable coverage of different sports and athletes. • More equitable representation in the newsroom. • More socially responsible and educative coverage. • And journalist reflexivity.” (p. 13).
As the authors note, the second admonition is interesting because it is internally contradictory. We want sports journalism that is critical of sports, of the actors involved and of sports’ place in society … but that is also unbiased and neutral?
One of the most interesting points the authors raised is the place of theory in our analysis of sports media. “It follows then that some theoretical and disciplinary perspectives catalyse explanations that may not afford journalists an agentic status in processes of sports media content production and dissemination.” (p. 17).
Here’s an example: My work - the social construction of news - heavily looks at how the routines of sports journalists shape their work. And while this is true, it’s also an easy theoretical out. Reporters do things because “That’s the norm.” or “That’s the routine.” or “That’s just way things are done.” This combination of social construction of news and isomorphism (from organizational sociology) is helpful at understanding why things are done. But it doesn’t offer any obvious ways to improve, other than the implicit “Change your routine,” which is not really helpful.
Importantly, from my perspective, is the authors’ view that textual analysis — where researchers examine a question by studying the published works of sports journalists — is of somewhat limited value.
Fetishizing sports media content – that is, analysing it apart from its conditions of production – often meets its political and ethical limits in critique of that content. Tracing the production and consumption of stories, from breaking to the evaluation of comments, is no doubt a more labour-intensive means of studying sports media, often requiring access to news desks, and the consent of journalists, editors and others involved in bringing stories to print, television and online formats. But it also promises more comrehensive accounts of how sports media content is mobilized as content, by tracing the labour that goes into its production, representation and consumption.” (p. 24).
If we want to make sports journalism better, first we (as academics, researchers and journalists) have to define what we mean by good sports journalism. What do we want our work to be? But we also have to move beyond just critiquing what we read and really understand how journalism is made in the 21st century in a way that offers prescriptives rather than just commentary. If we as researchers want sports journalism to be better, we have to take an active role in defining what that better looks like.
*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.