Sources: Sports Journalism At All-Time Low

November 15, 2010

Sources: Newtons Talked Of Pay-To-Play Plan

Sources: X Games Icon Travis Pastrana Headed To NASCAR IN 2011

Sources: Boston Red Sox To Go After Catcher John Buck Aggressively

Sources: Hurdle, Collins, Melvin Top Of Mets’ List

Sources: Atlanta Falcons Receiver Roddy White Expected To Play

Those are a sampling of headlines that appeared during a 24-hour period on ESPN.com last week, all attached to stories citing unnamed people “close to the situation.”

The use of anonymous sources is nothing new, and more often than not the reports are accurate, but the prevalence of this tactic in sports reporting is a bit alarming. What used to be dismissed as poor journalism is now encouraged, as writers and broadcast talking heads scramble to be seen as “insiders” – leveraging their network of sources to break news or in many cases break rumors.

So, what should the standard be for a respected journalist or media outlet? Where is the line that seems to blur more every day?

These questions were raised again last week when longtime Minnesota Vikings beat reporter Sean Jensen, now writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, published a story quoting several unnamed Vikings players and team sources skewering head coach Brad Childress.

Jensen got some terrific quotes:

  • ”We know that Childress doesn’t have our backs, so why should we have his?” one player said. ”We’re playing for us, and we’re winning despite him.”
  • “He has absolutely no people skills,” one team source said.
  • ”As much as I hate Childress,” another player said, ”I will keep playing.”

Trouble is, we’re forced to question the story’s legitimacy because we don’t know who said these things or in what context they were offered. And we don’t know if Jensen spoke to a number of other players who supported the coach, but left those comments out because they didn’t fit the agenda of his story.

One thing we do know for sure is that Jensen’s journalistic integrity is being questioned by some, including Vikings nose tackle Pat Williams, who commented eloquently on the topic:  “I don’t know. That’s just all reports. Ain’t no names. That’s Sean Jensen. So that’s what Sean Jensen do. He ain’t going to give nobody no names. So I really don’t pay no attention to that. That’s all he-say, she-say stuff. He ain’t going to put no names out there, so I don’t know if it’s true or not.”

I’m betting Williams’ English teacher wishes he had kept that quote off the record, but that’s not the point.

As much as I’d like to join Big Pat in demanding higher standards for reporting, I recognize that there is no going back. I say that because I’m part of the problem. I read this stuff all the time. I’m interested in what the “insiders” with a track record of accuracy are reporting. I’m curious about what people are saying behind the scenes. Is it journalism? I’m not sure, but it is what sells. And honestly, if I was in Jensen’s shoes, I probably would have written a very similar story.

How about you?