Cable-TV sports and PED framing (Research Wednesday)

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

Today’s Research Wednesday looks at two studies published in the fall edition of the Journal of Sports Media - one about story selection on cable sports networks, the other about the frames journalist use in covering performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Boosterism or Audience Interest: An examination of self-promotion on sports-network highlight shows by Rich Johnson and Miles Romney

It’s an idea a lot of us around sports media have had for a long time. ESPN, Fox Sports Network, and other cable sports networks use their nightly highlight shows not as a place for journalism but as a place to promote sports — especially the sports the network has a vested interested in succeeding. It’s one of the reasons, we assume, that you see tons of NBA talk on ESPN but rarely a mention of the NHL.

Like a lot of interesting research, Johnson and Miller’s study takes this assumption that we have and tries to figure out whether or not it’s true.

“Do sports networks such as Fox Sports I and ESPN use their journalism programming to promote games, leagues and sports with which they have financial or contractual interests?” they write early in their study, which uses the social responsibility theory of the press, the idea of hybrid messages, and the unique relationship between sports, TV and advertising to examine this question. The researchers conducted a content analysis of SportsCenter and Fox Sports Live between September 2013 and February 2014, a total of 2,105 individual packages.

So … do sports networks use their programming to promote games that jive with their contractual interests?


The NFL dominated SportsCenter and Fox Sports Live, and both ESPN and Fox have significant investments in the NFL. SportsCenter stories that reported on leagues with which ESPN has a contract were significantly longer than those for non-ESPN sports. Stories that appear in the A block for both programs (the lede stories) were more likely to come from sports with which the network has a contract. “Nearly four-fifths of the college items shown on (SportsCenter) were from leagues with which ESPN held the broadcast rights,” they write.

What this study does not address, the thing that the authors note is hard to determine, is whether or not these decisions are self-promotion or driven by audience interest. It’s the chicken-vs.-egg question that feels like the Holy Grail for research like this — are these sports popular because ESPN talks about them, or are they on ESPN because they are popular?

Who Framed the Steroid Issue in Baseball?: A Study of the Frame-Source Relationship in Traditional and New Media by Claudia Kozman

Any study that looks at the use of sources in sports journalism is going to interest me. And Claudia Kozman’s study does so in an interesting way. It’s a content analysis of traditional and digital media outlets, the sources they used to in stories about the steroid crisis in baseball in the 2000s, and how those sources helped frame the issue.

The study analyzes 477 stories from between March 1, 2005 (the start of the Congressional hearings on baseball’s PED problem) and Nov. 6, 2014 (the day A-Rod’s reported confession to the DEA was reported). In all, 12 media outlets were used — Nine mainstream outlets (The NY Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, CBS, NBC,,, and three blogs (as called by the researcher) - Deadspin, The Big Lead and SB Nation.

Kozman found that officials (be they government, sports, or business officials) were the most used source, averaging 3.2 per story. Players were the second most-used source at 2.45 per story, and overall they were the individual group that was quoted the most. Traditional media used four times as many sources as the blogs did and relied much more on sources in their stories than blogs did (to me, this was not a surprising finding).

What is interesting to see is how the sources led to certain frames in coverage. The more a story quoted officials, the more that story was likely to be framed around issues of policy (be it governmental influence or league rules and action). By contrast, the more player sources were quoted, the more likely he story used a morality, medical-scientific, media, and human interest frame. In other words, stories that quoted more players were more likely to focus on the reasons why players took PEDs rather than looking at potential rules and policy issues.

“These findings suggest that sports, as a topic area, are different from most other areas on which journalists focus,” Kozman writes. “Whereas most studies find government officials as the most authoritative source, sports stories put the weight on the players, even in a charged issue such as steroids, one that witnessed major influences outside the players’ circle.”

It’s also a reminder that who sports journalists talk to will have an important role in what story gets written. Sports journalism, like all journalism, reflects the worldviews of the sources used.

*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. Also, if you’ve seen a good piece of research, or want to know about a specific area, let me know!