AP/Mel Evans
Bob DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, speaks at MLB
Network Studios.

Examining the Future of Sports Journalism

July 02, 2009 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
As leagues, teams and athletes increasingly become the “creators of coverage,” sports journalism may be compromised by conflict of interest.

Questioning the Objectivity of League-Controlled Media

Justin Rice, writing a four-part series for Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, examined the trend in sports “where the subjects of coverage are becoming the creators of coverage.”

Where independent newspapers, radio and television stations, Web sites and other forms of media were once relied on to provide coverage of sports, now, teams and leagues provide their own news and analysis through their outlets. Content on affiliated Web sites has become more robust, and the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL all have their own television networks.

Rice considers whether this creates a conflict of interest
. Looking at MLB Network—which earned praise for giving full coverage to the news that Alex Rodriguez used steroids, even though it was embarrassing for the league—Rice finds “no obvious pro-MLB spin, no critical stories they’ve ignored.”

Still, he wonders, “Would MLB’s other contractual obligations have limited its ability to break legitimate news?”

League-owned media outlets are just one of the ways sports is cutting out the middleman—the independent media—and disseminating information directly to fans, worrying some who believe it is creating a conflict of interest and leading to biased reporting.

Teams Owned by Media Companies

Many teams have close relationships with the media sources that cover them. Traditionally, this occurred when a media company owned the team, though, as BusinessWeek recently reported, media companies have been more likely to sell a team than buy one this decade.

Several prominent teams are still owned by media companies; Cablevision owns the Knicks and Rangers, The New York Times owns nearly 18 percent of the Red Sox, and the Tribune Company, pending a sale, still owns the Cubs. The relationship between teams and the sources covering them has unsurprisingly led to suspicions of bias.

When Cablevision bought Long Island newspaper Newsday, former Newsday media critic Marvin Kitman wrote, “Perhaps the most important reason for buying Newsday is to get the paper to stop all the criticism on the sports pages about the way Jim has been running the Knicks into the ground.”

The Boston Globe, which is owned by The New York Times, has frequently been accused of being a mouthpiece for the Red Sox front office. Players and officials who fall out of favor with ownership are often criticized in Globe articles.

In 2005, after general manager Theo Epstein left the team over a dispute with ownership, fans “blamed the Globe for publishing leaks sympathetic to Sox owners that prompted his departure” and felt the paper “was reporting someone's spin,” reported Globe ombudsman Richard Chacon. In his examination of the paper, Chacon said he “found no evidence that Globe coverage is influenced by the Times Co. investment.”

Even if the reporting is not in fact biased, fans may not trust it. Last year, Chicago Tribune public editor Timothy McNulty wrote that Tribune writers would be “cheering” when the Tribune Company sold the Cubs because they “have lived with the suspicion of bias, favoritism and conflict of interest.”

Media Outlets Owned by Teams

The New York Times is looking to sell the Globe and one of the potential buyers is Stephen Pagliucs, owner of the Boston Celtics. The possible sale would continue the trend of teams buying or creating media sources themselves.

The Red Sox and Bruins in 1984 created the New England Sports Network (NESN), a premium channel dedicated to covering their games. The channel, now owned primarily by the Red Sox, brings in hundreds of millions of dollars for the team every year. Its success inspired other teams—most notably the Yankees, which formed the Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) Network in 2002—to follow suit.

“In some respects, the Yankees and Red Sox could be viewed as media companies masquerading as professional baseball teams,” wrote the Providence Journal’s David McPherson in 2005.

Again, this situation can lead to biased reporting. The YES Network’s coverage of former Yankees manager Joe Torre was allegedly negative at times at the request of owner George Steinbrenner. “It's an open secret that Steinbrenner and his lieutenants use the Network to tweak, if not challenge Torre, and funnel questions through field reporters,” wrote Bob Klapisch for ESPN in 2005.

Athletes and Social Media

The rise of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook has allowed leagues, teams and fans to reach out to fans without having to go through the press. The fledgling Women’s Professional Soccer league has built almost its entire marketing campaign around social media, even allowing some players to submit “tweets” during games.

Athletes have used blogs and social media sites to interact with fans and break news. At this year’s Giro d'Italia, cyclist Lance Armstrong stopped talking to the media and instead “sent out a dozen or more tweets each day, many with video interviews with fellow riders,” reported the Los Angeles Times. Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling revealed on his blog that he was retiring, while Timberwolves forward Kevin Love inadvertently broke the news that coach Kevin McHale was leaving the team, the Times reported.

While most fans find that this use of social media brings them closer to players, ESPN’s Bill Simmons argues that it actually allows athletes to construct a public image without necessarily revealing their true personality.

He describes how today’s athlete can control the media: “Control the access, provide your own filter, say nothing profound, play a part, derive the benefits.” He continues, “LeBron ushered in the I'm-controlling-every-interaction-I-have-with-you era. We've been hearing from him since high school, and yet I can't remember reading a single memorable feature about the guy.”

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