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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Seeing Through the Players Tribune

As a recent Mashable article noted, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about the Players Tribune.

Derek Jeter’s sports website has become a powerhouse, attracting audiences and investors with its promise of content produced by an impressive roster of superstar athletes.

The website’s concept, however, is nothing new.  It has merely refined the ethically iffy practice of ghostwriting.

Since the late 19th century, newspapers realized that articles “written” by athletes would attract readers eager to get closer to superstar athletes and their thoughts.

As the United States left World War I behind and plunged into the Jazz Age, Christy Walsh–probably the first true sports agent–took ghostwriting to a new level, matching sportswriters with the iconic sports celebrities of the age (Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne) to generate copy and lots of money.

Jeter’s site certainly takes the athletes’ contribution more seriously than did Walsh, who bragged about the deceptiveness of his practice. (Sometimes his athletes never saw what went out under their “bylines.”)

However, Walsh and Jeter do share one practice in common:  The professional(s) providing the help for the athletes get zero credit.

Players Tribune gives the impression that the contribution is 100 percent the players’ words–unfiltered, as Jeter is fond of saying.

Of course, no one 100 percent believes that. Nor did they back in the early days of ghostwriting.

It’s nothing against the athletes themselves. Writing, like anything, is a craft that takes practice and a little skill. It’s no shame to need help with it.

A good editor can identify a lead and make a written piece flow better. All those Web pages and videos don’t create themselves.

Why, then, won’t Players Tribune give those trained professionals the “as told to” credit they deserve, for the work everyone knows they are doing?

Note: Don’t go telling me that this is not true journalism, that it’s a form of public relations, and that PR staff don’t get credit. Jeter promotes this as a form of journalism, with the same benefits to a trusting audience.

And since Jeter and his staff are practicing a form of journalism, they should be aware of the rules of that game, and the fair play that is expected.

The ethical concept of “transparency” is a fairly recent addition to the canons of journalism, the result of the changes wrought to the profession and industry by the Internet, and of the same decline in respect for journalism that fueled projects like Players Tribune.

As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics describes the concept, transparency involves explaining processes and decisions to the public, particularly as they relate to ethics.

As it relates to The Players Tribune, everyone knows the process requires the involvement of a professional staff, so give them credit, Derek.

They’ve taken steps in that direction.  Last year, the Players Tribune added a staff page, titled, “The Team” (and isn’t it awesome to see Walter Iooss Jr. listed as a “photographer-at-large” there).

But it’s up to Jeter and his site to raise their game. They need to credit the individual contributions of these professionals who help create the memorable stories of The Players Tribune.

When Sports Illustrated got the exclusive to LeBron James’ 2014 announcement, “I’m Coming Home,” James and SI also credited Lee Jenkins, who helped James write it.

Such credit recognizes that journalism is also a team sport, with its superstars and its role players, its coaches and trainers.

So be a team player, Derek; give your teammates all the credit they deserve.

“Gotcha Tweets”–Nothing We Can’t Stop


Jonathan Bullard is a senior defensive tackle for Florida.  He passed on the NFL draft to return for his senior season, and is having a great year as a defensive leader for the Gators.

But for the right now, he is noteworthy for the following statement he made about how to defend LSU running back Leonard Fournette:

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It might seem like careless trash talk, but that was not happening here.

The Bullard tweet was taken from a longer quote (via @CodyWorsham): “He’s the best back in the league. We’re just going to have to rally to the ball to tackle him.  I don’t think it’s … he’s nothing we can’t stop, but we all have to rally to the ball, because he’s an excellent athlete.”

Confident, but not exactly bulletin board trash talk. But as tweeted by Mark Long of the Associated Press, the snippet was featured in articles by Bleacher Report and FOXSports.com (and a few LSU fan sites, I’d guess0.

In fairness, others presented the quote in its largest context, like Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com, Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, and Des Bieler of the Washington Post.

Fournette had been the subject of similar talk in recent weeks.  When asked about stopping Fournette before the Auburn-LSU game, Rudy Ford of Auburn said, “That shouldn’t be difficult, that much, of a challenge.”

To their credit, Auburn beat writers like Tom Green (@AUblog at @oanow) included quotes from elsewhere in Ford’s presser, but it was not the complete thought that Bullard provided.

College football fans remember how well that turned out — Auburn fans with particular pain.  And Ford’s disinterested attempt at tackling Ford on a long run (more a version of “one-hand touch”) didn’t make his life any easier after Fournette’s 228 yards on 19 carries.

The question is, did Long do right by Bullard? Obviously not. The quote was tweeted out of context, and I would predict that a small percentage of college football fans sought out the longer quote.

Bullard at first expressed his displeasure with what Long had done.

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Long did provide the longer quote more than an hour later, and acknowledged what happened to Bullard in a Twitter exchange.  Bullard, showing amazing class for how he had been misquoted, was gracious in his reply:

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But the damage had been done.

Anyone who knows media knows that the Associated Press is not a hot take machine. I did a temporary assignment for them way back in 1978, right out of college, and have always had a “gold-standard” level of respect for them.

I am not as familiar with Long as I am with the Alabama AP crew, but I would guess (and hope) that he does not gotcha-tweet too much.

That said (“hot take” pushers can stop reading here), anyone who considers himself or herself a journalist should understand the need to avoid out-of-context quotes, particularly on Twitter.

The SPJ Code of Ethics puts it this way: “Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”  To the extent that Twitter does all three, it’s a relevant caution.

There seems to be extra caution, perhaps additional care, in working with college student-athletes, who sometimes lack media savvy.

Bullard, as a senior, could be expected to know better, and he did better, as his complete quote showed. Ford should simply be smarter, period. But sometimes a young athlete speaks unwisely. It is up to the individual journalist to know when to take the ball and run with it, or when to the hand the ball back and say, “Did you mean to give me this?”

Regardless of the age or media experience of the source, it is also up to journalists to treat all sources fairly, especially on Twitter. To paraphrase, a tweet makes its way around the world while a complete, contextual report is still putting on its boots.

Let’s make sure the tweets that we send into orbit are grounded in fairness and context.