Facing trust issues in a post-newspaper age

The on-going slow-motion death spiral of newspapers has concerned me for quite some time. Normally I wouldn’t want to artificially prop up a business sector that can’t find a way to make itself profitable, but the loss of newspapers also means a serious diminishment of independent journalism.

That’s something I don’t want to see.

Sure, cable news networks will still be available to cover big events, with local TV news divisions filling in the blanks closer to home. But as we saw with the many of the Midwest tornadoes this past summer, cable news closes up shop in the late afternoon. While TV stations close to the action covered the devastation, folks like me — way off in the Pacific Northwest — scrambled to find out what happened through the Internet and social media sites.

And what about sports?

I think a lot about this situation — the diminishment of independent journalism — through the lens of sports because I worked as a sportswriter/copy editor at a medium (45,000+ daily circulation) newspaper. Unlike news, there is no cable TV equivalent for sports.

Right now you’re saying, “Now wait a minute, what do you call ESPN or Root (formerly FoxSportsNet) or Fox/SPEED or Comcast Sports Net or Versus/NBC Sports?” You can watch live events on all of these nets and get the day’s highlights from the world of sports on SportsCenter.

What do I call them? I call them “partners” to the sports they cover, and there lies a serious problem in the context of independent journalism.

I’m sure execs would argue that each of these nets has separate and independent “news-gathering” functions — and I have seen some big stories break on ESPN, for example — but much more often the people appearing on my TV screen are boosters and promoters of a particular sport.

That makes business sense considering how much money these nets paid for the right to broadcast events. From an exec’s view it would be stupid to look too deeply at possibly negative situations affecting their cash cows.

This is the issue newspapers have faced for the decades that advertising subsidized independent journalism. The industry as a whole — I’m sure there have been isolated exceptions — has built a strong reputation for not allowing conflicts of interest to affect the telling of truth: in my mind the hallmark of true journalism.

So even if the cable sports nets say they have established an independent news-gathering function, the appearance presented is mixed, and mostly boosterish in my opinion. When I pick up the sports section of a newspaper, I believe I’m reading the product of each writer’s journey to find and report the truth.

I don’t have any formal journalism training and learned what little I know by working with some very good editors and writers. Nowhere in my experience at the newspaper was it said that being a sportswriter involved promotion of a sport, athlete, team or series. I was told to discover and report the truth, period.

And that’s the problem with TV sports. For the sports news-gathering function to be truly independent and therefore trustworthy there can be no question about the purpose of the story. When I hear “news” on a cable sports net, my first inclination is to question the motive behind it — is it part of a PR campaign? Who benefits from the announcement?

No, I don’t believe newspapers get it right every time — on sports or anything else for that matter — but I trust the rules and methods in place that are designed and time-tested to get to the truth of a matter. If and when daily newspapers do finally expire, and I hope that never happens, we need to find a way to export those rules to the TV side of sports.


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