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.

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Shame in the Game

First published in the War Eagle Reader. You can find it here. MilesTweet

So perhaps West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr. was not too smart in calling out Kentucky before their Sweet 16 game last night.

Predicting a Mountaineers victory was preferable to pre-signaling defeat. But to claim the Wildcats “don’t play hard” might have been reckless.

But the media’s post-Daxter takedown on Twitter following Kentucky’s 78-39 double-down was an unnecessary slaughter of its own kind.

Some samples:

@SportsNation: “Daxter Miles had the same amount of points as Kentucky has losses. None.”

@JimRome: “36-1? Maybe Daxter meant the score.”

@darrenrovell: “Daxter Miles Jr., who said West Virginia would beat Kentucky tonight, finishes with ZERO points for the Mountaineers.”`

@BasketballPics: “Y’all misinterpreted Daxter Miles; He said ‘Kentucky would have a 36-1 run.'”

Reports emerged that Miles “hid” in a bathroom stall and had to be coaxed out to face the media, and the laughs grew louder.  (Hey, Dax: For future reference, when the pros hide from the press, they use the training room.)

And just as predictably, when Kentucky player Devin Booker tweeted “36 and WON” postgame, the rout was on off the court as well.

At this point, of course, I should qualify that the shaming was by no means unanimous and many media members either defended Miles’ expression of confidence or at least condemned the over-reaction to it.

Still, one of the most curious unintended consequences of Twitter is its enabling of mass shaming.  The verbal equivalents of an embarrassing Snapchat photo descend on an unfortunate individual whose decision deserved the drop, but not the flood.

Sometimes it’s a good thing — when Twitter’s democratic muscle calls the rich and/or powerful to account.  But when the media mob attacks an 18-year-old (and the takedown continued old school, on “First Take” and the other morning talk shows), is it going too far?

My thoughts are not directed at the fans.  Fans are fans, and if they were rational — well, I shudder to think what we would watch on CBS and three cable channels this week.  The UK faithful were as savage toward Miles as would be expected.

For Auburn fans, Miles’ words reminded them of a similar situation involving Tre Mason before the 2013 Iron Bowl.  Mason expressed a confidence in facing an Alabama team that was being hailed as a juggernaut similar to this year’s UK hoops team.

Tre did not suffer the same fate.  After al.com columnist Kevin Scarbinsky took Mason to task for his comments, the snarky backlash swarmed Scarbinsky more than Mason.  And of course, Mason’s team fared better than WVU.

Still, I wonder about those tasked with covering sports.  It is bad enough that sports style has evolved into a more personal, opinion-laced style.

But throw in the snark potential of Twitter, and if there is a line out there, sports journalists often cross it. The profile plea, “Tweets are my own” are no excuse.  Readers can connect the name dot to the byline dot.

At another place and time, I would have joined in the fun — maybe not toward Miles, but certainly at a more satisfying target.  And when the culprit is a misbehaving media member, the sharper the comment, the better.

As I’ve thought it through, a recent article by Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute provided focus and clarity.  Whether as participants or as detached observers who end up making a situation worse, journalists need to be careful around those who play with fire.

McBride concludes, “My hope is that … professional journalists will distance themselves from the shamings of private people that create very little social good, recognizing them as click bait and nothing more.  Most Internet stone throwers could be ignored.”

I would extend that standard to shaming of other public figures, including athletes, where there is no social good, only ridicule.

One reason for my re-thinking: Within the past couple of years, I had the chance to interact with a journalist who had been the object of shaming as a result of some reporting that had gone wrong.

I will be honest; I had at first participated in the flip criticisms of the reporter.  But from an outside source, I learned some mitigating details that caused me to backtrack on Twitter and to suggest critics take a second look.

From there, a mutual friend on Twitter encouraged me to contact the reporter, who was dealing with the firestorm.  So I reached out, in confidence (which is why I am being as vague as possible here).

We talked through the situation and possible remedies.  I did suggest some courses of action but was mainly there as a listening ear and an encouraging voice.

The reporter, through excellent subsequent work, has prevailed.  The firestorm is but a distant memory, and I don’t want to dredge it up here.  We DM on Twitter from time to time.  But the experience taught me, maybe more than I was able to help the reporter. No, it’s not as dramatic as those stories where a celebrity confronts a troll.

But it did have a disturbingly similar effect, reminding me that the people we snark on — whether a college basketball freshman or a well-known media member — are flesh and blood and feelings.

That, plus a desire to stand firm within the shifting sands that swirl traditional news and social media, have shaped my thinking.

As I have written before, one of my goals is to avoid being “that guy” on Twitter.  When you draw together enough “those guys,” it only gets worse.

No doubt Daxter Miles Jr. has learned his lesson and will probably do his talking on the court from now on. Sports journalists should realize that for them too, silence can be golden.

Rather than talk the talk on Twitter, they should walk the responsible walk.

This Blog Thing Here

OK, this looks better.  I’ve been planning to move my blog from Tumblr to WordPress for a while, and I have set up this blog, thanks to help from Rachel Pipan.  I’m easily impressed — most Auburn students know WordPress more than I do — but Rachel is wicked smart and talented.

(I’m also in the process of migrating my old stuff here. It’s a tedious process, but check back from time to time to check out the goods.)

To christen this new venture, I thought I would set down some thoughts on why I blog, why I tweet and from time to time, why I embarrass myself on sports talk radio.  I bring more to this process than a craving for attention — though I admit that, like every journalist, I love it when my stuff is read. Commented on. RT’ed. Linked to. You get the idea.

But how does it relate to my work as an associate professor of journalism for Auburn?  As we learn to always say in class with a smile, good question!  And this time I have an answer for it.

It is crucial that those of us involved in profession-related academic programs (education, business, pharmacy, yadda yadda yadda) engage with our profession.  The ivory tower is real to some folks both on and off campus, but we’re not compelled to keep office hours there.

I have found that Twitter in particular gives me an opportunity to engage — not only with professionals who are kind to respond, but also with sports media audience members, including my students.  Sports media as a research stream draws a little more interest than 18th Century Latvian poets.  I’d like to think that I have something to offer both in terms of insight and observation, from both my professional (15 years) and academic (21 years) experiences.

So what does this contribute to my academic career?  Directly, I would estimate somewhere around, ah, maybe, nothing.  None of it goes on my annual report or my CV. Which is fine.  Indirectly, of course, it adds a lot — to the classroom, to my research and to me personally.  Trying to word that last component sounded too California, so you’ll have to get it from that.

That said, let me quickly add that I have nothing wrong with the official stuff — the research that got me tenure and promotion (i.e., job security) in the first place.  At the risk of being celebrated as Captain Cool or Mr. Fun, I will confess that I enjoy my research into the history of sports media.

My blogging has slowed because I am currently gutting out a biography on Ford Frick, baseball commissioner from 1951-1965.  But when it comes to reading the old Sporting News editions online, I’m a geek and I can deal with it.

But I don’t want it to stop there.  When it does, academics are just talking and writing to each other at conferences and in journals, and rewarding themselves for it.  I enjoy the conferences and the journals, but there has to be more to the life of the mind.

If this is your first time at one of my blogs, you might notice that much of my stuff is based on academic research — my own and others.  The Bill Tilden piece for OutSports started as a journal article.  The ViceSports essay on racism in sports broadcasting summarizes the readings for a class lecture on the topic.  The BINGing and CORFing piece applied others’ research on social identity theory to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry in a football game weekend lecture — the Immaculate Reception of 2013, to be precise.

As I relate particularly the work of colleagues, it’s well-received, because it’s like an untapped treasure; many sports fans are not aware of the great media research that has been going on.

I always argue that the most important product of a college/university is not students — it’s knowledge.  We exist as a place where new ideas are tested that will benefit society.  In the social sciences, our mission is to help society understand the processes that affect everyone.

So to me, when I share it through my blogs, it’s an easy sell. There is some good product out there.

Yes, we then impart this knowledge to students, and I will also admit to loving the classroom too.  Teaching is like journalism to me — lecture prep is info gathering, lecturing is article presentation, and grading is editing.  I mean, what’s not to love?

My personal perspective in the classroom and on social media is old school in origin — having transitioned from typewriter to VDT to command-based PC to Mac to networks to Internet to social media.  I struggle to keep up with the tools, as demonstrated by the foray into Tumblr that Rachel had to rescue me from, but the principles still work.

So basically, I love everything about being a college professor (except the endless meetings, of course), and I love reading and writing, particularly as both relate to sports and the pros who write what I read.

I hope that shows through here, and that you enjoy what you read here. If it doesn’t, and you don’t, I can’t blame Rachel.