When to Panic

When the recent ESPN report on Auburn came out, it was quickly accompanied by the usual wailing and gnashing and harbinging of doom.

The article did catch my attention, I’ll admit. But before I reacted, I decided to read through it. Then I read through it again.

My response?

At least for now, that restraint was justified, as no new developments emerged to increase the need for panic.

But rather than go deep on one article, I’ll explain the info standards I follow before inducing panic using several examples. Yes, some stories have sent me into a funk. Others pass without justifying much beyond a shrug and a shake of the head.

So here is a guide on when to panic and when to shrug.

I. Single anonymous source: Attention only

This applies both to this week’s story and to Kevin Scarbinsky’s story about a conference call to fire Jay Jacobs.  Anonymous sourcing is allowed within ethical journalism, but the accepted standard is two anonymous sources.

Scarbinsky’s article relied on one anonymous source. Regardless of how credible that source might be, it’s safer to get two, even if one merely confirms the information without adding to it.

So while I found the Scarbinsky article interesting, if objectionable on other grounds, I adopted the wait and see attitude.  What we saw was a denial from Auburn President Dr. Steven Leath and nothing further.

Similarly, the ESPN report included one anonymous source. I did note that Auburn itself served as the other source, confirming the situation, but that’s an unusual case.

That Auburn would confirm it, rather than offer the “personnel issues” perceived stonewall, was also a source of assurance on the story for Auburn fans, but that’s another interesting side to it.

It seems that the Auburn athletics department has followed a strategy of “aggressive transparency” on certain stories, similar to their response when Shawn Assael of ESPN focused on Dakota Mosley, in his article on the 2011 arrest of four Auburn players.

When they have nothing to hide, they don’t act like they do.  They seem to realize that in such cases, openness solves more problems than a stonewalling approach avoids.

II. Named source/AU beat involvement: Moderate concern

Now, when a source is willing to openly attach his/her name to information, that takes it to a different level (and a single credible named source is acceptable in such cases).

The individual might have an unfair ax to grind, but when they grind the ax publicly, it takes the concern to a higher level.

I think about the 2006 NY Times report about the misuse of sociology independent studies.  Jim Gundlach, a sociology professor, was credited as the source of the information.  And ultimately it was worth worrying about.

This was an important story, and for all the grief he received, I give Dr. Gundlach a lot of credit for bringing it to light.  It was a UNC-level academic problem that needed to be addressed, and it was appropriately problematic for Auburn’s academic reputation. (Yes, I will die on this hill.)

So when that story came out, yes, it deserved our attention. It was bad. As I recall, I first heard about it on the WSFA evening news (this was 2006, after all), and I realized I was eventually standing in front of the TV and yelling at it.

Another consideration: take note of how the Auburn beat writers follow up on the story. Auburn is blessed with some top-notch journalism pros covering the athletics programs.

I know fans wish they would be as passive as the beat writers covering other CFB programs.  But given their aggressiveness (which ultimately is a positive), their response to such stories will let you know if something is there.

When such stories come out, regardless, all of the Auburn outlets will link to it and summarize it. They’re expected to, even if the process seems like a waste of time.

They might add an official reply from Athletics or Auburn University, but beyond that, they don’t consider the juice worth the squeeze.  That is an indication of how far the story could go and could allay your fears.

Now, if their reporting starts to uncover their own layers to the story, you might want to pay attention.  The concern level is likely to rise from moderate and approach panic.

III. Indictments/arrests: Panic

When the U.S. Attorney’s office in NYC announced that Chuck Person was indicted on a variety of charges, yeah, it was bad.  I won’t go much beyond that in discussing this case, since much is yet to be revealed.

No one knows where that case is going to end up, but yeah–when it reaches that stage, it’s bad. It’s for real.

So how to respond?

I did see a lot of anger and frustration once the ESPN report published. As time went on, and the first wave was the only wave, it was replaced by indignation and anger directed at the writers, particularly Mark Schlabach (some of it justified, but not all of it fair).

My main concern is when we assign face value to such journalistic transactions, and it overvalues the information given.

If it doesn’t involve federal or state charges or a named source, it might be worth waiting on.  That way, if it goes no further, you’ll ride a straight line from mellow to mellow, with no frantic, unnecessary up-then-down detour in between.


The Source of Problems

Former Mississippi head coach Houston Nutt ignited a firestorm Wednesday when he announced a lawsuit against his former employer, Ole Miss –along with head coach Hugh Freeze and Athletics Director Ross Bjork.

The lawsuit also creates an embarrassment for several leading college football journalists.  Nutt cited articles they wrote, claiming that Freeze, Bjork and Kyle Campbell (associate athletics director for communications) had served as anonymous sources for reports and tweets that defamed Nutt.

The lawsuit claims that Freeze, Bjork and Campbell spread misinformation that the NCAA case against Ole Miss significantly focused on violations during Nutt’s tenure.

A simple Web or Twitter search identifies the journalists involved. It must be stressed that these are allegations, part of a lawsuit advancing Nutt’s legal interests, which at this stage of the case is a weak form of confirmation.

The journalists whose words were cited (though they were not identified in the lawsuit) include Pat Forde of Yahoo, Chris Low of ESPN, Neil McCready of the RebelGrove.com site and David Brandt, AP sports writer for Mississippi. McCready has already ridiculed Nutt’s allegations on Twitter.

I also bring much skepticism toward Nutt’s allegations, because according to my ethical standards (and I’m assuming theirs), they would not have allowed Freeze, Bjork or Campbell, or their representatives, anonymity to pass along such information.

If you haven’t noticed, anonymous sources have been a hot topic of debate, with President Trump tweet-blasting the practice.

In politics and in college football, the principles for anonymous sourcing are the same.  To identify the main issue in this case, read this from the SPJ Code of Ethics, which is followed by many journalists:

“Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm.”

Following that standard, Freeze, Bjork or Campbell would not be granted anonymity, because their motives were clearly self-preservation, not a disclosure of truth that would put them at serious risk.

As part of the process, a reporter is expected to identify the anonymous source to a superior. That not only safeguards the reporter’s credibility, but it would also provide the outside perspective of asking, “Why are we not demanding that the Ole Miss coach/AD go on the record?”

Another factor is at play here: Eventually the allegations would be publicized, and at that point the information of who was mentioned, Freeze or Nutt, would be clearly identified.

The Houston-to-Hugh ratio would not be kept locked up for perpetuity; it would be disclosed. The reliability of the anonymous source’s information could be clearly judged.

From that perspective, Nutt’s case would best be pleaded in a press conference, not a court case.

You can tell that I am giving these journalists the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they would not allow themselves to be manipulated in that way.

As the case progresses, we might get a clearer picture of what actually happened. We might not. It puts the journalists in an awkward situation, perhaps undeservedly in terms of protecting their credibility.

For all journalists, however, it serves as a good reminder: Save the anonymity for sources who need it and deserve it — not for powerful, well-known folks seeking to save their own hides.


This Post Is Less Than 1,000 Words

Andy Gray, senior editor at SI.com, didn’t realize the stir he was about to cause when he posted the following in response to massive editorial layoffs:

Following announcements of cuts at Yahoo, MTV,  Vocativ, and HuffPost — and FOX Sports dumping its entire editorial staff, regardless of talent or views — some folks had had enough, as their responses showed:

Of course, Gray oversimplified — an ironic mistake, given the topic — and he acknowledged it himself in a later tweet.

But his remarks cut deep, and the angered response of the many journalists I follow on Twitter showed.

I’m curious how many readers jumped to longform’s defense.  I write that not to be sarcastic or caustic, but to point to the problem it implies: that longform’s support is stronger among the profession than it is among the audience.

Even if that’s true, I’m going to stop short of oversimplification and avoid using this as a rationale for quick and broad slaughter of editorial positions.  The problem, like longform itself, is more complex than that.

First, a shout-out to the past I was fortunate to inhabit, unlike many of my younger colleagues.  In a pre-Internet age, because of the fewer information options, publishers could take risk with longform pieces in newspapers and (mainly) magazines, and it spoiled many of us.

That was not the only factor.  In broadcasting, the FCC enforced policies that supported “the public interest,” and those policies also promoted a culture where all media appreciated a sense of social responsibility.

It might sound overly romantic (and maybe it is), but back then, media outlets understood the balance between what the audience wanted and what the audience needed, and provided both forms of content.

Journalists were socialized to understand that hard news and analysis were the broccoli, and soft news was the ice cream, and the news media had a responsibility to provide a balanced diet.

From then until now, such policies have been eliminated, public stock ownership of media outlets has caused an obsession with short-term profits, and the Internet, while providing the technology to easily support longform, has instead reinforced and even hastened the decline in attention span. Audience members have been conditioned to hyperlink rather than reflect.

Thus, sports media executives are conditioned to respond quickly and simply to prop up profits, with no consideration of the responsibility to provide a variety of content.  And simple numbers prop up these decisions and reinforce the philosophy.

And with these video offerings being more Skip Bayless than Edward R. Murrow, the decline is even more depressing.

So where does that leave the longform, written word producers?  We discuss the audience for such pieces, even as we recognize that a high percentage of that audience came to the longform free of charge, without a financial commitment to the content.

From a local and a niche/team perspective, of course, sports media continues to find an audience, and many sites still exist that provide a variety of content, though directed at a specific interest group.

But from a national perspective, as long as the Jamie Horowitz’s of the world bank their genius on a strategy devoid of that earlier sense of social responsibility, the writers should consider themselves on their own.

That implies a challenge to the audience to support these longform-ers beyond finding the fewer and fewer sites that publish their work.

When will the downward spiral stop? When the support for longform transitions from journalists responding to a Web producer on Twitter, to audience members willingly subscribing to the sites that still support longform, and to the excellent writers being let go by these national outlets, wherever they end up.