Auburn journalism professor: Joe Schad’s ESPN report on Manziel raises questions about credibility

First published on AL.com. Find it here.

When ESPN’s Joe Schad reported on the Johnny Manziel autograph allegations Tuesday, those who follow me on Twitter (shameless plug — @John_P_Carvalho), you saw me tweeting a lot of questions.

These questions reflect the kind of issues we talk about in journalism as it relates to such issues as source credibility and anonymous sources.  So here, with more than 140 characters, are some of these issues.

First, a complaint about reality.  I recognize that ESPN is in a rush to stay ahead on this story.  I am not suggesting that they gaze at their navels for days, meditating on principle while the story passes them by.  But some additional steps would enhance their credibility and maybe help the reader understand the story better and trust the reporting more.

Now, on to the problems:

Problem #1: Source credibility.  I do not know much about autograph brokers, but they don’t seem to rate high on the respect scale.  They seem to prey on the naivete of both athletes and sports fans.

Journalists deal with this all the time.  Perhaps a paragraph of discussion in the article, along with a link to a sidebar on these brokers, would enlighten the audience as to ESPN’s awareness of whom they are dealing with.

Source credibility was a big issue in an important libel case, Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967).  You’ll have to do your own Google search for the case details; it does involve allegations of cheating against Bear Bryant, to whet your appetite.  One thing that worked against the Saturday Evening Post was that the main source for the article had served jail time for fraud.

Problem #2: Granting anonymity.  Perhaps no ethical decision is abused more than this.  Journalists recognize that granting anonymity immediately causes the audience to doubt the source, so we try to make sure the source has a good reason for requesting anonymity.

This source would claim a valid reason for requesting anonymity.  He (Schad identifies him as a male) could lose business if he is identified as the source for the video.  But when a source in a shady business (see Problem #1) seeks protection, the cringe factor increases.  Granting anonymity to the wrong source can make the reporter look like a dupe.

The responsible thing to do is, within the article, include a paragraph or two explaining the decision and explaining how the source fits in to the story and the situation.  In other stories (granted, involving more credible sources), you frequently see a sentence like, “The sources requested to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to release information on the case.”

Another responsible action, which I would wager Schad did, would be to identify the anonymous source to a superior.  This is SOP for any journalist.  Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee knew the identity of “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men.  Which relates to the next problem.

Problem #3: Selling videos.  While the cell phone video has what would be explosive content, if true, ESPN was correct in not paying the autograph broker for it.  While some tabloid publications/websites might, most traditional media outlets do not pay for interviews or documents.

In essence, the autograph broker was damaging his own credibility here.  Schad’s story does not specifically say that the revelation of the video’s existence set off some kind of bidding war, though I can imagine the broker got at least a few offers.  In offering it for sale, he seems to be out for personal gain more than anything.

What is confusing, however, is who actually saw the cellphone video.  Did Schad alone see it?  Or did someone else see it?  The story is unclear here, because it uses the terms “Schad” and “ESPN” interchangeably.  (In these situations, I usually write a comment in the margin that says something like, “Networks don’t view videos; people do,” and have my student clarify.)

As with the anonymous source, it would be safest for two people — Schad and someone else, preferably a peer or superior — to view the video.  That not only increases the story’s credibility, but demonstrates ESPN’s commitment to cover its bases.

I’m not claiming that these are situations where ESPN and Schad failed.  I am saying that these are potential pitfalls that should be addressed in the presentation of such reports.

It’s one reason investigative reporting is such an arduous and costly enterprise.  In the classroom, we teach our students not simply to take such situations and run with them, but to evaluate and appraise and ask and decide, and then to communicate those decisions.

(Side note: Critics always claim that college students should not major in journalism.  This is an example of why it is a good reason to do so.  Better to cover this stuff in the classroom, before it runs you over in a job-related situation)

I doubt ESPN reps or Joe Schad will answer these questions because of what I write here.  Let’s hope they answer these questions in their articles because it represents solid, responsible investigative journalism.

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Steve Spurrier and the Media Mess

There is so much not to like with this Steve Spurrier-Ron Morris dust-up in Columbia, S.C.  It’s hard to find anyone doing the right thing.

1. Start with Spurrier.  His remarks seemed directly not only at Ron Morris, the offending sports columnist for The State in Columbia, but also at any sports journalist who would be tempted to take on the Old Ball Coach.

It just seems a bit creepy when a coach turns his attention to the media who cover him and complains.  Most coaches don’t like the criticism that is written about them.  They are not expected to celebrate the First Amendment when they are on the receiving end of a blast.  But most coaches ignore it.

When Spurrier crossed that line, it was unfortunate and unnecessary.  It started with a refusal to answer questions both at a press conference and on a conference call.  It finished with a blunt statement on his weekly radio show.

2. Morris is not off the hook either.  The breaking point for many besides Spurrier came when Morris, in complaining about Spurrier’s high-handedness and the university’s unwillingness to rein him in, compared the situation to Penn State.  Throwing such analogies out require great care.  He was forced to apologize, but he should have known better.

As to whether Ron Morris is the journalistic buzz-saw Spurrier alleges, check out his recent column on Spurrier’s decision to play Connor Shaw against UAB.  I’ll be honest; I’ve read worse.  This doesn’t come close to what Skip Bayless would have said or what Jason Whitlock would have written in similar conditions.

But this is the article that Spurrier was referring to as “very negative, critical toward me, slandered my name, my integrity,” adding, “The guy’s trying to tarnish and ruin my reputation as a coach.”  Really, Coach?  He comes off sounding awfully thin-skinned.

True, much of the controversy surrounding Morris involves an article he wrote more than a year ago that accused Spurrier of “poaching” Bruce Ellington from the USC basketball team.  The facts for that are definitely in dispute.  But the more recent column is light years away from that.

3. WOLO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Columbia, also looks bad.  The station managers cancelled the “Mondays with Morris” segment in light of the controversies.  The timing of such a move looks bad enough, almost like pandering to Spurrier.

But WOLO general manager Chris Bailey compounded the mistake with a statement that includes the following gem: “Free speech … was originally put in place to protect media and writers from government censorship.  It does not, however, protect the writer from consequences in the realm of public opinion or the marketplace.”  Perhaps, Mr. Bailey, but that is because the assumption is that the media themselves will enforce high standards of free expression and debate in the public interest, rather than cutting and running when the heat is turned up.

With this line of thinking, the station would be justified in refusing to air controversial editorial comments on important political issues, because it is the station and not the government making the decision.  That is sad.

4. Finally, the other journalists covering the University of South Carolina are not looking too brave.  Their silence on the issue is disturbing.  The only protests against Spurrier’s words came from national media like Gregg Doyel at CBS Sports.  The onlylocal protest came from Dan Cook of the Free Times, a Columbia weekly.  Nothing yet from the daily sports media.

It seems like Spurrier is getting a free ride from the beat writers covering USC.  They are open to the accusation that they are allowing Spurrier to intimidate and manipulate them.  And, the argument continues, they are letting him get away with it because they know that, as a winning coach, he has the fans’ support regardless of the ethics of his actions.

It is similar to the situation in Alabama (disclaimer: I am an Auburn fan), where the press covering Nick Saban seem reluctant to criticize or even address his treatment of the media.  Before the Western Kentucky game, when Saban went off on the sportswriters for underestimating WKU, the writers mainly joked about it.  The national media again was left to take Saban to task for a truly strange rant.

In both cases, the sports writers know that the fans – their readers – support the coach.  When the coach directly criticizes the media, the fans might respond by canceling subscriptions, or clicking on other websites.  It seems like the sports writers would rather “play ball” with the coach then stand up to him when he crosses the line, as Spurrier did with Morris.  They are intimidated by their readers as much as the coach.

Obviously, the treatment is different for coaches who are not winning.  Can you imagine what would happen if John L. Smith at Arkansas or Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech complained about the media at this point in the season?  The local media would rise up and attack.

Now think about coaches like Mark Richt at the University of Georgia.  He receives his share of criticism and comment, but does he chastise and try to manipulate the media?  He deals with it and moves on.

A colleague brought up another point.  Communities like Columbia, S.C., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., have a more provincial feel to them where coaches like Spurrier and Saban can get away with such treatment of the local media.  But the larger the city, the harder it is to pull that off.

Lane Kiffin knows that he can’t get away with it at USC, try though he did.  Any coach, pro or college, who would try that in New York City, Chicago, Washington, and maybe even Atlanta (considering Richt’s approach) would only make a bad situation worse.

But win or lose, big town or small town, what Steve Spurrier is trying to accomplish with the media in Columbia is wrong.  And I wish that more journalists would have the courage to stand up to him on it.