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Kentucky Basketball: How Ethical is Soliciting Anonymous Comment From Coaches?

Anthony Davis was smeared by the Chicago Sun-Times before he came to Kentucky, and in a similar way by CBS after he left
Anthony Davis was smeared by the Chicago Sun-Times before he came to Kentucky, and in a similar way by CBS after he left

John Clay had an interesting article a couple of days ago that was highly critical of CBS Sports' basketball writers polling around 100 anonymous college coaches on some very controversial questions. Clay said:

Give credit for one thing.

It has managed to sum up everything that is entertaining and egregious about the Internet in one series of posts.

College basketball is the subject. A naked play for page views is CBS Sports' transparent goal.

That's right of course, but there's nothing wrong with that. CBS is unabashedly a for-profit enterprise, and generating page views generates revenue, something that the writers in this case are supposed to do.

But Clay doesn't stop there:

At the same time, CBS Sports has turned college basketball coaches into those anonymous commenters at the end of Internet stories or posts, the ones who can say practically anything about anybody without having to (a) produce one shred of proof or (b) stand behind their accusations with a real name.

Sure, the results are entertaining to read, but any significance is completely undercut by cowardice.

That's true, and I think the CBS staff knows that none of these questions are really significant. Anonymous coaches have been alleging improprieties in recruiting and other such pejorative information for a long time, and often without any real knowledge to inform their facts (see Knight, Bob). Just a couple of years ago, Anthony Davis was the victim of exactly that via a report by Michael O'Brien in the Chicago Sun-Times, although Clay goes out of his way to point out that anonymous sources are a critical part of news gathering, and in general he is correct.

Where it all goes wrong, of course, is when you can't verify a source's report, and getting one or more additional anonymous sources to say that they agree with one another is simply not the right way to go about news. That's why what we see at CBS isn't really news, it's a blatant play for page views. Nobody would accept the "weasly" words as, Clay calls them, when questions are asked about perceptions rather than the truth or fiction of a particular statement.

What we have in the CBS stories are a bunch of opinions that are given the imprimatur of being "informed" due to their supposed positions as "coaches" in college basketball. We are not told if they are head coaches, or assistants, or assistants to the assistants. This vastly reduces the credibility that could be ascribed to their comments, but even if they were all head coaches, it is far from clear if their answers provide any insight into truth, or if they are merely acting as an echo chamber for media reports and the complaints of their peers.

In the Anthony Davis case, many reporters, including those writing for CBS, rightly attacked the Sun-Times report as irresponsible. CBS did not place their series about "Critical Coaches" on their main news site, but rather put it on their blog, which is an apparent attempt to separate this series from actual journalism, which has rules that would make these stories highly suspect and subject to criticism.

The question is, does the simple fact that it is reproduced under the rubric of the CBS basketball blog remove the writers, many of whom, such as Gary Parrish and Jeff Goodman, are considered to be actual journalists, at least by CBS if not by most Kentucky fans, from being held to journalistic standards? Does publishing this kind of "tabloid" series insulate them from journalistic ethics?

Taking a look at the Society of Professional Journalism's code of ethics, there are a few places where this series doesn't measure up. Specifically:

  • Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

    Clearly this wasn't done, and should have been in every case. Why would you think X coach is "perceived as a cheater?" This isn't even addressed.

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

    Many high school and former students were mentioned in these articles in a pejorative way, such as in this article about which player's recruitment is perceived to be "the dirtiest in the last 10 years." Several players who have yet to see the floor were named. is this fair to them? Was this compassionate, and did it give the players and others involved a chance to respond?

  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

    I don't think this needs further exposition.

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

    I don't think anyone would deny the sources of their report are rife with likely conflicts of interest that could well affect their opinions. To be fair, CBS often disclaimed these opinions as likely suffering from such issues, but is that enough?

There are probably other journalistic ethical standards that may have been compromised in this series, I'm just going with the ones that appear most obvious to me. But in my opinion, the big ethical question these guys should ask is, would I want to be named in a series like this? Would I be okay with seeing my name as "perceived to be" the biggest cheater or the dirtiest recruit without being able to confront our accusers? This, of course, is known as the "Golden Rule," which advises us to place ourselves in the place of the subject of our actions, and evaluate our comfort with it. Obviously, if a journalist has documented evidence of actual cheating in sports, not reporting it would be wrong. But is reporting speculation and anonymous polls responsible journalism?

From my point of view, I can only say that this entire series is all about heat, and nothing about light. It provides no truly valuable insights, but it does produce a lot of angry and defensive commentary from defenders of those singled out by these questions. Some questions have genuine interest, but the ones about perceived cheating and dirty recruitments come too close, for my money, to anonymous defamation, which is really what some of it boils down to.

That can't be a good thing, but CBS seems proud of it. I invite you to draw your own conclusions about that.