Over on her Times Union blog, WTEN anchor Lydia Kulbida touched on SI.com’s controversial firing of a freelance journalist because he was caught applauding (along with most others in the press box) after underdog Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500.
At issue is the concept that sports reporters are not supposed to be seen “rooting” for athletes. The freelancer in question also posted a defense to his Twitter account that essentially said it doesn’t matter so long as there is no bias reflected in the actual reporting itself.
A lot of pundits are using this to decry a lack of professionalism in sports journalism, and in particular sports reporters acting as fans.
Thing is, I’m not entirely sure this is rooted in anything other than a fantasy obscured by the cigar-smoke of yesteryear. You’ll be hard pressed to find any sports reporting that has ever been as neutral as straight news stories on current events, crime, or any other topic. That’s because at its root, sports journalism is more malleable. Which is as it should be, particularly when it comes to sports like NASCAR, boxing, and Mixed Martial Arts, where the applause and praise is given on the spot to individual achievement and not to the achievement of the individual; an important distinction that sadly the otherwise stalwart Sports Illustrated failed to make in rendering their decision.
Also, it’s a game. It’s always, at its root, a game. No matter how many millions a person is earning, how inspiring a story may be, or how poetically one waxes: it’s games. Competitive, yes, but it’s recreation. While culturally prevalent and necessary, it is not a life and death struggle that effects the day to day life of a city, state, nation, or humanity as a whole.
There is a line, blurred as it may be by an industry that asks reporters to be “neutral and professional” in the press box on Sunday and write a scathingly provocative editorial on Wednesday. I think that line, though, rests with financial means and influence. I don’t think a group of reporters cheering a young kid because he shocked the world crosses it. On the other hand, someone like Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer providing coverage, news, and analysis for teams that also employ him as a consultant absolutely crosses that line. The difference is intent, context, and integrity.
There are standards that need to be upheld, but there are also varying degrees and like everything else in sports journalism, everything is dependent on the circumstances. Tom Bowles, the freelancer in question, was not covering the New York Mets and cheering every time a Met got a hit. He was not at the Super Bowl and hugging his fellow reporters as the final seconds ticked down and his favorite team was given the Lombardi Trophy. He was simply a reporter celebrating a sports moment and, in turn, a sport as a whole. He was not “being a fan” in the press box, he was being a human being that got caught up in a historic moment, no different than the reaction that every single reporter in the press box had during the “Miracle on Ice.”
None of them were fired, so why should Tom Bowles?
Where this crosses the line from silly to sad is that these reporters and pundits who jumped on Bowles are applauding a news organization for not standing by one of its reporters and allowing the loud consternation of a select few contrarians and braggarts to dictate their editorial policy. It is that action taken by Sports Illustrated against their own that is the betrayal of journalistic ethics and a real cause for concern.
Keep an eye on Lydia’s blog, as she’ll have more on this tomorrow.
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