The Dying Art of Sports Journalism: A Postscript

Andy Lyons

No sports journalist is perfect, but imperfect is OK. Misleading is not.

Context is important to me, so for the sake of context, I will present the following (and use the first-person pronoun, at least for a bit, more often than makes me comfortable):

I enjoyed reading Glenn's column Thursday morning on the topic of fairness and sports journalism. As someone who covers a team beat every day, being fair — to my readers, my subject and myself as a journalist — is my No. 1 priority, and if any beat writer says otherwise, he or she is either a lousy beat writer or a liar and, in either case, should be trusted accordingly. How each beat writer goes about said fairness is up to him or her and is best interpreted not by what the journalist says but by what he or she writes every day.

Because I'm a journalist, I spend a lot of time talking about media best practices and complaining about what I think is poor journalism. But it's mostly in a private forum — friends and I talking shop — instead of in publication for public consumption. Only once have I published at length on the topic of irresponsible reporting, framed in the aftermath of Kentucky's loss to Michigan State in the Champions Classic last month. A journalist who covers the Spartans asked what I thought was a really bad question to Tom Izzo, and it got under my skin. I've asked a lot of really bad questions in my career to date, but none in what I thought was a malignant way to knowingly mislead a subject to confirm, and in turn publish, a preconceived notion I had. That question that night seemed over the line to me.

For the sake of context — again with the context — here's the question as it was asked, pasted verbatim:

Tom, was this a statement for old-school basketball, that with all the NBA scouts here looking at the freshmen, you have a team with two senior starters, as kind of a reminder that there's still room in this game for the guy who sticks around and has that experience?

So after Kentucky lost to Michigan State, I wrote this from the United Center in Chicago. A small snippet:

For a journalist to ask that question, such as this journalist did Tuesday, was to imply old-school is right and virtuous, and new-school is evil and damn it all to hell. It was a loaded question, and if a journalist is to attempt to lead an interview subject to respond in a way that is not original to the subject, it's irresponsible reporting. The intent of the question asked as it was asked was to reduce Tuesday’s game—which was a great game, and certainly not one to which college basketball at large is accustomed to seeing in early November—to an easy narrative for column inches, a microcosm of the downfall of society, that kids who stay in school can beat the big, bad recruits sometimes if they work hard enough and do things the right way.

Before I published that night, I searched around the Internet to try to identify who asked The Question. It had been bothering me, obviously, because I had just written lots of words about it. But I was tired and hungry, and my limited knowledge of Michigan media didn't allow me to find the answer immediately. Over the next week my detective work led me to the columnist and the column. His name was Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press, and I found the column he wrote that night.

Read my story above and observe how Izzo didn't play in to Sharp's question. It's pretty clear Izzo did not agree with Sharp's assessment that "old-school basketball" won or was even a thing. Yet Sharp left the press conference — at which, it should be noted, he did not ask the same question to John Calipari — and wrote a column with the following headline:

Drew Sharp: Michigan State's win vs. Kentucky a victory for old-school college basketball

That was the exact moment — me reading that headline, a week after the game — that my head exploded and imploded at the same time, and I died. I didn't have to further read, because I had already seen both what I feared most would be written, but I wasn't about to abandon the notion that context is king. So I read.

From Sharp:

Keith Appling is a senior. That's taboo in today's college basketball. Why are you still here if you're any good? That's the perception. It's not fair, but it's the reality.

Perhaps Appling has figured out that it doesn't matter how good others believe you should be, but it's ultimately about becoming the best player you can be. Appling's three-pointer with 4 minutes remaining broke a 66-66 tie, propelling the Spartans to a 78-74 victory over Kentucky in a matchup between the nation's top-ranked teams.

And what does it mean one week into the season?

"It's a great win, but we know we didn't really accomplish anything because it's a long season," Appling said.

"Didn't accomplish anything?" Izzo interrupted at the podium. "What the heck are you talking about?"

Sharp asked a question that night, and Appling and Izzo did have that interaction. But the interaction printed was not in response to Sharp's question about old-school versus new-school basketball. The quote Sharp used, which was the only quote in his column (an understandable position writing a deadline column to get in the paper after covering a late game in a different time zone), came from this question which another reporter asked, the first question when Michigan State's contingent of Appling, Izzo and Gary Harris sat down at the dais to field questions:

"Keith, for you personally-this seemed like a Final Four atmosphere. Could you talk about what this win meant for you?"

Sharp found a quote that fit his narrative, and he plugged it in. That was more bothersome than anything else in the column; as a columnist, Sharp is allowed to voice his opinions, but he wrote that night to make it appear as if Appling and Izzo were of that opinion as well. A columnist's license does not extend into the voice of those quoted much like a critic at Pitchfork can't change a singer's lyrics to fit what he thinks the message of the song should be.* Izzo wasn't, and he nor anyone ever asked Appling (at least not that night). The reader would not know this.

*Please don't read Pitchfork.

Another snippet from Sharp's column:

Izzo, for his part, has dived into the five-star pool, understanding that if you want to compete for national championships with Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, you can't automatically shy away from the one-and-done player.

That sentence presented several problems. Instead of naming, say, the last three national champions, Sharp named the three teams with the big three (presumed one-and-done) freshmen in college basketball this season (also the three other teams at the Champions Classic that night, which may have been his motivation, to be fair). He also ignored something Izzo said in direct response to a question he asked. Izzo:

"Guys, Kentucky's an anomaly. Not everybody's like that. Duke's got a lot of veteran players. A lot, they've got some fifth-year, some transfers. Kentucky, he's found a niche. He does an incredible job with it. But I don't think that's the norm right now. I'm not saying it's good or bad. I hope I get more and more one-and-dones or two-and-dones, but I also appreciate having guys around that appreciate listening to Magic (Johnson) talk about making sure that they don't worry about those things and just play basketball. At the end of the year, things will get taken care of. If it takes you one year or three years, it's about the final goal and it's about the process."

What Izzo said to Sharp, and what Sharp said in return in print had little in common. They were both in English, and they were both on the topic of basketball. That's about it.

Returning uncomfortably to the first-person pronoun: My entire livelihood depends on being honest with my readers and being fair with the subjects about which I write. For all the complaining I do about covering a beat every day, I full well recognize my job is to write about college basketball, and it's funny to the point of not being funny how easy my job is. All a journalist has to do is be fair, and it's not as difficult as you may think. It requires thought and an ability to self-assess, but that's no different than anybody else's job. Occasional missteps happen, and that's fine. Nobody's perfect. But an honest mistake isn't the same as calculating a column and following through with it after the subjects contradict. At least Detroit Free Press sports readers aren't used to being misled or fed information about things that never happened.

No journalist is perfect, and no journalist is perfectly fair. It's unreasonable to expect your favorite beat writer to be perfect, but if he or she isn't trying, that's not acceptable. If a journalist omits context that he's knowingly disobeying — and especially if he omits context because he's disobeying it — he's not practicing journalism.

James Pennington runs the sports page and covers UK at kyforward.com. He's on Twitter at @pennington_jl.

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