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Dan Le Betard wrote a fascinating column last week about the role of the media in the internet age, and I wanted to highlight some of his thoughts:

“Evolution” and “progress” are not always synonyms. The electric toothbrush is an example of that. So, too, our ability to now get dinner at the gas station. But because survival is the strongest instinct, in humans and in business, sports journalism is being forced to evolve into selling its principles and fairness (its soul, in other words) in exchange for clicks and cash, a trafficking not that far removed from porn.

(Porn is more honorable, actually. At least there, the participants agree to the transaction and get paid.)

It is either that or lose money and ratings and eyeballs to people who don’t make any kind of moral stand. The mainstream media might have wanted to stay out of the TMZ-ization of the Tiger Woods story on principle, but it literally couldn’t afford to do so because viewers were going to go find it somewhere. Show me the restaurant that tells you what you should be eating, instead of giving you what you want to consume, and I’ll show you an empty restaurant……

There’s also an interesting generation gap growing between old media, which is either aging or dying, and new media, which gets stronger by the day. Today’s kids — and kids are what make everything popular — don’t seem to be as judgmental as their parents. They want to see Portland center Greg Oden naked and the drunk photos of Texas center fielder Josh Hamilton just for the voyeuristic pleasure in it, not necessarily to judge it. And old media can’t keep ignoring those kind of desires, not if it wants to survive. It is hard not to notice that newspapers keep going out of business while TMZ Sports is scheduled to open this year.

While I do agree with the general sentiment of Dan’s column, that sports media is losing integrity as it embraces the voyeuristic tendencies of the Hollywood media, I do want to quibble with the bolded portion. Sports media is not being forced to sell its soul for clicks, it is choosing to do so. Analogizing to newspapers, the New York Post, the New York Times, and the National Enquirer have been sold at the same newsstands for many years. There is always a niche available for responsible, reasoned journalism, as there will always be an audience of fans that are not interested in voyeuristic stories that have little to do with the events on the field. Now, that niche may be less lucrative than the less principled route, but that does not change the fact that there is a choice being made every time a media outlet digs into Tiger Woods’ past.

I understand that as businesses, these outlets need to make decisions that will maximize revenues, and therefore do not begrudge them for moving away from the moralistic ideals that Le Betard pines for. However, for the writers, I think their choice remains obvious. If you got into journalism in order to report and comment on the news in a principled and moral fashion, and you feel that your outlet is forcing you to compromise those ideals, you can take the money or find a new employer. It is a simple decision, and I believe that both choices are equally valid. I have no problem with a reporter sacrificing his own ideals in order to support his family, and I have great respect for those who refuse to budge on what they believe in. But it is important to note, once you cross the line that Le Betard notes and sell your principles for clicks, you have lost some of your integrity.

Ultimately, journalistic integrity is the underpinning of a great sports writer or media outlet. In a climate where every story is picked apart within minutes, those who refrain from crossing those voyeuristic lines and do not seem to be trolling for clicks garner the most respect. Sites like Fire Joe Morgan sprung up because of the shift that Le Betard discusses, as writers began to make intentionally ridiculous statements in order to drive pageviews (of course, there are also those that are simply idiots). And yet, despite the constant fisking of journalism that lacks integrity, the media psyche continues to shift in the wrong direction.

A writer such as Ian O’Connor, who had an embarrassing column simply removed from the internet and continues to take shots at athletes for personal reasons (see recent A-Rod columns), was rewarded with a plum job at ESPN NY likely due to his ability to incite anger and drive page views. In the battle between dollars and integrity, the money is winning comfortably. And unless media outlets suddenly become uncomfortable with the sacrifices that they are making or the zeitgeist among fans shifts away from the more abhorrent voyeuristic elements of reporting, this is unlikely to change any time soon. Slowly, bit by bit, journalistic integrity in sports media is suffering an agonizing death, and we are largely powerless to stop it.

Edit: Just as an illustration of my point, see Bill Conlin’s response to the fact that he discussed the greatest infields of all time and left out the Reds of the 70’s:

“I covered Rose, Morgan and Perez when they were with the Phillies, know them well, and don’t really care what you post on your blog. I write a commentary column and it attracted an enormous response. That’s the coin of my realm and why I’m still drawing a paycheck 11 years past age 65. Thanks for helping to keep me in the game.”

Mr. Conlin, the job of a journalist is not to create controversy, it is to report and discuss the news. What you are doing makes you no better, and likely worse, than the bloggers that you so loathe.

6 Responses to “Journalistic Integrity In The Internet Age”

  1. Just as an illustration of this, see Bill Conlin’s response to the fact that he discussed the greatest infields and left out the Reds of the 70′s:

    “I covered Rose, Morgan and Perez when they were with the Phillies, know them well, and don’t really care what you post on your blog. I write a commentary column and it attracted an enormous response. That’s the coin of my realm and why I’m still drawing a paycheck 11 years past age 65. Thanks for helping to keep me in the game.”

    http://redlegnation.com/2010/03/10/you-wont-believe-this-one/  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

  2. A couple of quick reactions…

    I totally agree that journalists have a choice in the matter and can choose to report and comment on the news in a principled and moral fashion, to use your terminology. This refrain coming from some quarters that the industry is just changing and that journalists don’t have a choice in the matter is inaccurate and is kind of a cop-out. I think we, in all walks of life, have moved as a society towards this idea that the almighty dollar is the proper explanation/excuse for anything and everything – so, per LeBetard’s piece, sports journalism is being FORCED to change for money – but there is still a choice to be made. People don’t HAVE to make choices based solely on financial considerations. If you choose to take a job that compromises your principles because you want to make more money that’s fine and you can point to the money as the explanation for your choice, but don’t act like you had no choice in the matter. I agree with you, Moshe… Go ahead and sell your principles if you want to, but realize you’re also selling part of your integrity.

    On the other hand, I think you might be conflating two different issues here. I’m not sure the journalist’s choice to sell his/her principles due to the modern financial pressures of the MSM is what led to the creation/popularity of sites like FJM. FJM made its bones in large part by reviewing the work of writers like Murray Chass and Mike Celizic and, obviously, TV personalities like Joe Morgan… A lot of the people FJM took on weren’t people who were changing their style to meet modern financial pressures, they were dinosaurs who were left in a different time and refused to embrace the advantages of the modern age. The shift you mentioned is definitely occurring, but I think it can be seen more in the hiring practices of a company like ESPN (just look at the composition/actions of their in-studio crews over the last 20 years or so to see the movement away from educated analysis and towards dumbed-down entertainment) than in the criticism of a site like FJM, which was really taking on the old-school flat-earth society types as much if not moreso than it was taking on those who compromised their values for dollars and page-views.

    On what I consider a related note… I would love to see a blogger address the issue of journalistic ethics concerning blogging, or blogging ethics, or whatever. I think the blogging world serves an important purpose when it monitors the mainstream media world, but when blogs have reached a point where they’ve, either by design or not, melded the line between blog and journalistic outlet, I think it can begin to grate on the audience when the blogging world is constantly screaming from the rooftops about the MSM while turning a blind eye to their own ethical issues and the practices of their peers. To get the ball rolling… In what has become a thriving and relatively close-knit blogging community centered around the Yankees I can point to a few examples of issues that should be discussed, one of which is bloggers publishing pieces with the purpose of inciting emotion/controversy and building page views (substitute “anger” for “emotion/controversy” there and you have what you said about O’Connor, above), as opposed to the purpose of just getting things right and providing the best, most reasonable answers or opinions. Writing with that goal is something that has been mentioned openly by one of your TYU colleagues a few times, so this isn’t just some hypothetical. I don’t intend to flame anyone or anything like that, but if we can’t openly discuss this stuff, I don’t see how we can bitch about the MSM doing these things.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    Excellent points all around. As to my conflating two points, I definitely agree that FJM type analysis is more focused on the dinosaurs than the click-whores. That said, i think that many of those writers have shifted their way of thinking, and it has simply exacerbated matters.

    To your most interesting point, I think blogging ettiquette is complicated, and I”ll do a post on it, maybe a roundtable with some other bloggers, in the near future. I will say that reader expectations are rightfully different between the two realms. When a blogger writes something to create controversy and clearly labels it as such, I take no issue with that. On the other hand, if a blogger presents him/herself as a journalist and then writes inciteful things that they dont believe in without disclaimer, then you have a much blurrier issue. That said, I think the blogosphere audience will eventually tune that sort of writer out.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    The Honorable Congressman Mondesi Reply:

    Very cool, I look forward to that discussion.

    And just to clarify what I said earlier*, I think what I’ve picked up on lately is kind of a “who watches The Watchmen” situation. The blogosphere has kind of become an unofficial media watchdog, which I think is a great thing… But at the same time, if there’s no self-reflection and self-regulation involved, a lot of it comes off as kind of smug criticism.

    *Not that I think you need me to clarify it, clarification meant more for general consumption.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

  3. Moshe, I think U mixed up O’Connor with Klapisch…
    The linked article from HBT has Klapisch as the guy taking shots at Strawberry…  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

    Moshe Mandel Reply:

    Good catch, changing it.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

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