Tim Layden posted a piece on SI.com on Wednesday night, claiming that sports reporting is moving away from objectivity.
Layden’s thesis is:
The voice of sports media has changed as well. Increasingly, sports journalists have abandoned neutrality in favor of writing (or broadcasting, or podcasting) in the voice of the fan.
It’s an interesting piece by Layden, but there are a few things to address.
For one, he doesn’t lay out any evidence to support that hypothesis. He talks to three accomplished, knowledgable journalists in Malcom Moran (whom I interviewed with when I looked at attending Penn State for my doctorate), Michael Wilbon and J.A. Adande. But aside from a few anecdotes, there’s no real data or evidence to back up his claim. Anecdotes are fine. but if you’re going to make a sweeping statement about the voice of sports media, you need to back it up with some data.
Second, it’s worth noting that of the six sports journalists he refers to in the story, three of them (Wilbon, Mike Greenberg and Scott Van Pelt) are primarily broadcasters now. A fourth, Simmons, made his name as a fan’s voice. I’m not sure they’re the best bellwethers for a changing voice in sports media and sports journalism.
Third, it ignores the historical aspect. Sports journalism, historically and at its roots, is highly partisan. The “root root root for the home team” that Layden’s headline refers to was the model of sports journalism for the first half of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that sports journalism slowly began to move toward a more objective model (George Vecsey wrote about that evolution in his great book A Year In the Sun. There’s a reason why researchers have written that the coziest relationship in media is between sports journalist and team. A lot of respected, objective journalists also make cases for pro football players to be inducted into the hall of fame. Local TV anchors are always in the tank for the home team (witness how Buffalo media supported the decision to start Nathan Peterman after saying for weeks that Tyrod Taylor should keep starting).
Fourth, there is this:
The traditional voice of the sports journalist (or any journalist) is a neutral voice, detached from any connection to the teams, players and coaches he or she covers. The buzzword here is “objectivity.” This was best expressed by one of my early colleagues in sportswriting, who was once offered condolences after the team he was covering lost in the playoffs. “I don’t care,” my colleague said. “I get paid on Thursday whether they win or lose.”
Of course, it’s not that simple. Pure objectivity is a myth; no journalist is devoid of emotion about the subject at hand, whether it’s a game or a feature story. In fact, that connection often makes the writing better. And anyway, Adande says, “I think fans have always had a hard time believing that we could just turn off our emotions.” (Wilbon says, “Objectivity is something you strive for, but never reach.”)
That’s fair. But for a very long time, the best journalists kept their preferences to themselves, while endeavoring to write balanced journalism. Example: I covered Super Bowl XLII between the Patriots and the Giants for Sports Illustrated. My preference would have been to write the story of the first 19–0 team in NFL history, but instead the Giants upset the Patriots. Sportswriters have performed variations of this dance millions of times over the last century or so, suppressing personal preferences and letting the story tell itself.
This fits with what research has shown, that objectivity is considered the most important professional norm for journalists (John Soloski wrote extensively about this). But there has been debate in recent years in journalism circles about whether or not objectivity is the correct norm. If it’s a myth, why strive for it? There’s a school of thought that says we as journalists should own our biases, admit them openly and strive not to be objective but to be fair.
The reason why this may be a golden age of sports journalism is that there are so many voices in the marketplace of ideas. For every fair, objective journalist, there is a fan blog ranting about the refs. This is all good. The more voices we have, the better. The more viewpoints we have, the better. The reason Bill Simmons is celebrated is that he opened a new door for writing, making it OK to still be a fan of sports.
Yes, objective reporting still matters. But it’s not the only way to write about sports. It is not the be all, end all of sports media.
The more voices we have, the better we all are.