Submitted by Dr. John McGuire1*, Mr. Ray Murray1*, and Dr. Stan Ketterer1*.
1* Associate Professor, School of Media and Strategic Communications, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Okla.
This exploratory research study examined the attitudes of television sports directors (n=108) concerning editorial judgments made in covering local sports and how such judgments are supported by or come into conflict with other newsroom personnel. Findings included sports directors (a) believed their editorial judgments on stories were frequently questioned, and (b) had sports stories regularly reassigned to news personnel.
Keywords: Editorial judgment, newsroom practices, sports Introduction
The late Howard Cosell once described the sports world as the toy department of human life. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Sports journalists, whether they are print, broadcast or Web-based, frequently deal with stories that will cross into traditional news beats such as crime, business and health. These stories will require editorial decisions and perhaps discussion of ethical practices.
In 2010, WFAA-TV in Dallas ran a news story with video of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recorded in a bar without his knowledge. The video showed Jones criticizing former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells and explaining why Parcells’ hiring was important to Jones’ effort to get a new football stadium built for his team. WFAA-TV Vice President of News Michael Valentine said Jones’ comments about the stadium (mostly paid for by taxes that voters in the Dallas suburb of Arlington approved) made the story newsworthy. The story ran about 40 seconds during one of the station’s newscasts (Tompkins, 2010). WFAA Sports Director Dale Hansen disagreed with the story being covered and used the opinion segment during his sportscast that night to attack the story and its source: “Yet another example of the decline of journalism as we once knew it. Our business now, too many times, is a fat kid in a T-shirt in his mother’s basement eating Cheetos and writing his blogs. And we make it news” (Bracht, 2010). Hansen also acknowledged his editorial judgment was overruled in the news department: “Their position was Jones is a public figure and the story is already out there so we had to do it, too. That’s the standard now” (Bracht, 2010). Although such editorial disputes are rarely played out so publicly, they do occur, whether it is about how a sports story is covered or the resources to be committed to coverage. This exploratory research study examines attitudes of television sports directors concerning editorial judgments made in covering local sports and how such judgments are supported by or come into conflict with other newsroom personnel. This study’s purpose is gaining a better understanding about the relationship between television sports and news departments and how they interact regarding story selection and presentation. The study also represents an initial step is understanding ways to improve sports journalism practices and the training of future multimedia sports journalists.
The importance of sports journalism and whether coverage of sporting events is truly journalism has been debated in several academic studies (e.g., Knoppers & Elling 2004, Oates & Pauly, 2007). Critics have raised issues ranging from economic conflicts of interest to whether such athletic endeavors enjoy too much prominence in comparison to other societal concerns. Those who defend the importance of sports journalism counter that such reporting offers another way of better understanding society as a whole.
The Media-Sports Complex
One criticism of sports journalism (particularly of electronic media) is that such reporting is diminished in light of business relationships that exist between media companies and athletic organizations, obliterating traditional barriers separating journalistic content from the media company’s business practices (Oates & Pauly, 2007). McChesney (1989) has identified such relationships as part of a media-sports complex. The most common relationship that exists is between teams and leagues that sign broadcast and cablecast deals with local, regional and national distributors. Although such deals are primarily driven by the cash value paid by the distributor to obtain the rights, sports entities become a partner with the distributor in other ways. For example, the distributor may agree to turn over some of its commercial inventory to the team as part of the contract so it can be used for advertising ticket sales or special promotions.
Sports Journalism or Promotion?
Those identifying themselves as sports journalists would be expected to follow the traditional values and ethics of the profession. Yet several researchers have examined whether sports journalism serves more as a vehicle for commercial interests promoting their sports franchises(Knoppers & Elling, 2004; Oates & Pauly, 2007; Rowe, 2007 among others). Although critical of this seeming conflict of interest in sports coverage, Oates and Pauly (2007) acknowledged mainstream media (although not explicitly) has offered news consumers content that blends business and editorial interests.
Criticism that sports journalism is similar to promotion also stems from sports journalists failing to examine stories off the playing field. Rowe (2007) examined types of stories that newspapersports departments covered in Australia through a content analysis. The researcher found only about 30% of all sports stories used studied could be considered “hard journalism” (e.g., league finances) while the remainder focused on game reports or feature stories. In discussing his findings, Rowe attributed the lack of “hard news coverage” practiced by sports journalists in that country to (a) limited interaction with other sources with perspectives beyond the teams and athletes typically receiving coverage, (b) an overreliance on the primary forms of story telling in sports journalism (e.g., pre- and postgame stories), (c) lack of desire to pursue such hard news coverage in the area of athletics, and, perhaps most damning of all, (d) “excessively close integration with the sports industry” (Rowe, 2007, p. 400). Rowe’s last criticism goes to the concerns stated above about the uncomfortable business relationship between all media outlets and the teams they cover.
Some of the failure for sports journalism being taken seriously has been placed on the way sports journalism students are trained. Tuohey (1999) found television news directors had concerns about the negative effect that ESPN’s flagship broadcast, SportsCenter, had on young broadcasters (e.g., focusing on catch-phrases). Keith Olbermann, one of ESPN’s most famous SportsCenter anchors, bemoaned many sports journalists were failing to get training on reporting fundamentals such as developing sources or understanding what is (and is not) libel (Tuohey, 1999).
Although the preceding discussion may discourage the idea of treating sports coverage as serious journalism, some of the same critics have encouraged such coverage to increase and improve. Oates and Pauley’s analysis (2007) noted such reporting has contributed to a better understanding about sports and its impact on our society and “exploring the moral implications of sports as a cultural activity” (p. 342). The authors suggested that by focusing on the big picture regarding sports in society, such coverage could be placed within a more prominent context with news consumers.
Television Sports Departments
Although little or no research exists on the issue on editorial judgments involving television sports and news departments, there has been research into the role local sportscasts have played within the local television newscast era.
Sportscasts and Audience. Although sportscasts have been a regular part of local television newscasts for many decades, the sports segment has failed over time to establish itself as an integral part of such newscasts. The Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) conducts surveys every few years, asking viewers and news directors about the importance of various newscast content. Over the decades, such studies have ranked interest in sports poorly, with a 2006 study being no exception. The survey asked local television news viewers to rank on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 meaning they cared a lot), about certain types of newscast content. Weather and national news tied for greatest importance (M=4.2) in the RTNDF study while sports ranked only ninth out of 11 types of content (M=2.4, beating out only information about entertainment or movie and entertainment reviews). In the same study, news directors expected sports would do poorly in attracting viewer interest (Papper, 2006).
Despite the continually negative results regarding interest in sports content, there are those in the industry who continue touting the importance of local sports within newscasts. For example, a 2002 report on civic learning and engagement found 18-to-25 year-olds participating in sports were more than 50% more likely to watch local newscaststhan those who don’t (Benz, 2007). Sportscasts within local television newscasts also attract heavy male viewership and businesses seeking the male demographic find local sportscasts effective investments for their advertising dollars (Schultz & Sheffer, 2005; Wenner, 1989). More viewers were also found to be going to local television websites to find sports video content they could not see within the sportscast (Malone, 2009).
Studying TV Sports & TV News Departments. Jameson (1999) has made the argument that “conflict is an inevitable and pervasive part of organization life” (p. 269). As television newsrooms are often organized by both job (e.g., on-air reporters, videographers) and departmental designations (e.g., news department, sports department), it is likely internal conflicts are a regular part of the television news process. Employees within organizational subcultures may have greater loyalty to the group of people they closely work with instead of the organization as a whole (Lowery, 2002, p. 413). Although Lowery’s research dealt with a newspaper’s internal organizations (e.g., the editorial department dealing with the visual design department), his findings have implications for the current study. Through a case study and in-depth interviews, Lowery found that though workers in these subgroups believed they were in competition with one another,they would tend to avoid open conflict regarding any disputes, preferring to negotiate differences between departments. Lowery (2002)also found organization subgroups would have their individual norms and practices eventually crossover to other subgroups in the organization.
Although there are no apparent studies examining conflicts over editorial decisions between the sports department and the news department within television newsrooms, Schultz and Sheffer (2005) examined the relationship between these departments, focusing on programming and management. In their 2005 study, Schultz and Sheffer identified what they called a disconnect about the role of the local sportscast. Based on interviews done with news and sports personnel at local television stations, they found sports directors considered their segment to be far more important to the overall newscast than news executives did. Sports directors were also far more likely than news directors to believe that their individual departments were effectively cooperating.
Schultz and Sheffer concluded part of this disconnect stemmed from the rapidly changing nature of local news coverage due to market forces (e.g., more entertainment-based news) while local sports segments remained relatively unchanged (e.g., presentation of scores, highlights). Researchers also noted sports directors felt they had a high level of autonomy over the sportscast segment (e.g., in content and presentation), leading to philosophical differences with those responsible for the news blocks of such telecasts.
Schultz and Sheffer (2007) followed up that study by using hypercompetition theory to study how some sportscast segments were being impacted by changes in the local television news business. The researchers defined hypercompetition as a state where organizations such as local television news operations operate in such a fluid, competitive environment that the ability to quickly innovate was necessary to be successful. The researchers found experimentation in news segments of their broadcasts extended into sports coverage. Schultz and Sheffer (2007) noted examples that included (a) restricting sports reports to specific newscasts, (b) cutting back the amount of time for sportscasts, allowing more time for other content and commercials, (c) spreading sports coverage over other segments of newscasts without a sports segment, and (d) the outright elimination of the sports department. These changes served as a challenge to many sports directors who felt they had authority over how sports stories are reported on that station.
Although previous research has examined the value of sports journalism and conflicts with local newsrooms about the presentation of local sports coverage, the literature review suggests that there is a research gap in the area of how editorial disputes are dealt with between the sports staff and news staff in local television operations.
Therefore, we pose the following research questions:
RQ1: How do television sports directors describe their working relationship with news personnel regarding editorial decisions?
RQ2: How do television sports directors describe their feelings about sports stories being reassigned to other newsroom personnel?
RQ3: How do television sports directors perceive their abilities regarding journalistic and editorial practices?
For this research study, participation was sought from individuals who were identified as sports directors at their local television station. Researchers collected data through an online survey. An industry roster of television sports directors in the United States (n=450) from a directory of broadcast stations was used to send out the survey (along with messages inviting participation). Total participation was 108, producing a response rate of 24%.
Instrument and Data Analysis
The survey included a series of Likert-type questions as well as several open-ended questions for subjects to provide additional comments about specific concerns related to the television sports business. As this was an exploratory study, the researchers developed survey questions based on their professional training and personal experiences.The first section of the study asked a series of Likert-type questions (scale of 1 to 7 with 7 used as the strongest measure) concerning editorial judgments and whether conflict between news department and sports department personnel had arisen from such judgments. Open-ended questions at the end of this section asked respondents to cite specific examples of editorial conflicts. The next section of questions asked sports directors to describe their use of journalism practices (e.g., when and how to utilize unnamed sources) and the level of professional training that is provided to the sports department staff). Another set of questions dealt with the issue of when stories are reassigned from the sports staff to other newsroom personnel. A report of descriptive statistics from the data collected was produced using SPSS 17 software. Data were screened for missing and out-of-range responses.
Of subjects (n=108) responding to the survey question concerning gender, the overwhelming majority (91%) identified themselves as male (only 3% of the respondents identified themselves as female). Using Nielsen Station Index rankings for 210 local television markets, the most responses for the survey came from stations in market size 31-60 (22%), followed by market size 61-90 (18%). All of the responses came from affiliates of one of the four major terrestrial networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC). Of subjects who reported the number of years they had been at their current station, the
greatest number of responses came from people who had 10 years or more at their current employer (37%). The next highest group was those people who had been at their stations 1 to 3 years (32%). Of those subjects reporting the academic major, nearly half (49%) listed Broadcast Journalism, followed by Communication and Mass Communication (12% each), Journalism (9%) and other academic disciplines (8%) Three respondents identified themselves as having never received an academic degree. The researchers also asked about the athletic backgrounds of the respondents: About 30% reported either professional or collegiate athletic backgrounds.
Editorial decisions. Sports directors were asked about how often a news director or producer overruled an editorial decision made concerning a sports story before it made air. Out of the responses received, 86% were “7,” or “quite often” on the scale provided (n=106, M=6.77). When asked how often a news director or news producer questioned an editorial decision about a sports story after airing, respondents (n=106) suggested this also happened quite often (M=6.42). Nearly two of every three respondents to this question (66%) gave the strongest response (7 out of 7). Asked if they felt supported by news management in the editorial decision they had made, respondents (n=104) felt they did not receive much support (M=1.87). On this question, nearly half (46%) responded with “one,” or “very unsupportive” on the question, responding they had received very little support in making editorial decisions. When asked how often they as sports directors consulted the news director or a news producer in the editorial decision making process, respondents indicated they generally did (n=106, M=4.58).
Story reassignment. Two questions in the survey asked respondents about situations where the news director or a news producer reassigned stories the sports department would typically cover. Asked how often a story was reassigned to the news staff on grounds of conflict of interest involving the sports staff, respondents (n=105) indicated it was something that had occurred quite often (M=6.44). Nearly three-quarters of the respondents (74%) gave the maximum response of “7” to the question. When asked how often they [as sports directors] challenged the decision to reassign a story, respondents (n=105) suggested it happened often (M=5.05). Nearly one-third of the respondents to this question (32%) gave a response of “7” or “quite often” to this question. Respondents were then asked whether they had ever taken issue with the way a sports-related story that was reassigned to the news department had been covered. Respondents (n=105) indicated they voiced concerns on a regular basis (M=5.05). The highest percentage of respondents (32%) said they did so quite often.
Journalistic Practices. Part of the survey dealt with journalistic practices that sports directors would routinely deal with in their job. For example, subjects (n=105) reported they regularly utilized unidentified sources in their reporting (M=5.29). The subjects also reported that they frequently participated in professional development (M=6.23) but engaged far less often in discussion of journalistic or ethical practices (M=3.75). When asked if their sportscasts routinely featured “hard news” reporting, subjects suggested they generally did (n=104, M=4.8).
Researchers also asked how sports directors felt about their level of preparedness for making editorial decisions when they were first hired. When asked if they were prepared to make decisions about “hard news” stories in sports (e.g., reporting on the financing of athletic facilities), subjects (n=106) suggested they felt less than prepared (M=2.53). When asked about how prepared they felt about decisions concerning game coverage (e.g., what games get priority coverage), the figure was even lower (n=106, M=2.08). Finally, when asked if they believed their college or university education prepared them to make editorial decisions as a sports director, respondents (n=104) were generally neutral (M=3.76).
Discussion and Conclusions
This study posed three research questions: (a) how television sports directors described their working relationship with news personnel regarding editorial decisions, (b) how television sports directors felt about the reassignment of sports stories to personnel in the news department, and (c) how television sports directors perceived their ability to make journalistic and editorial decisions. The findings point to conflicts existing between the sports and news departments, particularly related to issues discussed in RQ1 and RQ2.
In answering RQ1, results strongly suggested television sports directors believed their editorial decisions were frequently questioned. As a previous study found sports directors believed they had a level of autonomy over the content and presentation of their sports segments, the data in this study suggests that belief may influence attitudes over editorial control (Schultz & Sheffer, 2005). An open-ended question in the survey asked
respondents to describe instances of being overruled on editorial judgments. One example cited a case of a major scoop being lost: “When Nick Saban was going to leave LSU and take the job at the Miami Dolphins, I had it sourced by three different people, one of which worked in the school, he [the News Director] said to wait, then ESPN reported it and he said to break in. I could have killed him, but he was new in town and didn’t know me.” This response showed that a sports director, even when he or she has followed journalistic practices of getting multiple sources, was still being questioned about his or her news judgment. The issue of experience was also noted by some respondents in their responses. As more than one-third of subjects in this survey reported being in their current job for more than 10 years, a sports director’s longevity may influence how he or she may feel about his or her own reporting and editorial decision-making skills. As a result, this may create resentment about being overruled by news personnel who have not been in the market as long. It could also be suggested that new management at local stations are unfamiliar with operational norms (Lowery, 2009).
Other instances cited also dealt with editorial choices. One sports director cited a story where 10 high school males had taped a sex scene with 3 high school females at a party (all younger than 18). Although no names were used, the sports director said the news department identified the boys as being part of the high school baseball team instead of just high school students: “I made the argument that while not using the names, we identified the males. We cut it down from 700 males in the school to a team of 17 players. The girls involved in the incident were cheerleaders, but we never said that. My argument fell on deaf ears.” Another sports director related a case where he felt pressure from other departments within the station to stop covering a sports figure involved in legal action: “A minor league hockey player in our market was arrested for DUI and our news director began to feel pressure from our sales department to stop following the player’s court appearances. He in turn began to pressure our sports department to let the story die.” This case, where the sales department was bringing pressure to bear on coverage decisions, reflects a common horror story that is traditionally attached to general news coverage.
Some subjects noted examples where there was agreement on editorial decisions. One sports director related the story of a college football player secretly recording a conversation with his coach. When the tape was given to the station, a decision had to be made about how to report the story: “I thought we wouldn’t have time to air the entire conversation and suggested we use excerpts, but the news director said no, that we had an obligation to either use it all or none of it so the conversation couldn’t be taken out of context. I agreed.” This and other responses suggested that though some sports directors believed their editorial decisions were frequently being questioned, they still enjoyed a good working relationship with the news staff. Considering the high percentage (86%) of respondents who replied that their editorial judgment was questioned quite often, these comments seem to suggest that some sports directors have simply gotten used to dealing with challenges to their editorial judgment.
In answering RQ2, the survey results strongly suggest that the reassignment of stories occurs frequently in newsrooms. The frustration level among sports directors participating in the survey seemed to center on those reporters assigned to cover the story instead of sports department personnel. One subject raised the issue of news people lacking background knowledge: “Most of the time they seem to miss the point. Occasionally they will ask for help but it’s rare and end up with WRONG(respondent’s emphasis) information.” Several respondents provided examples where inaccurate reporting occurred once a story was reassigned from the sports department to the news department. One such anecdote dealt with an obscure winter sport: “A local Nordic skier, an Olympian, had a health issue. News decided to take the story, then didn’t consult the sports department after the story was written…and the tag line of the story went ‘so-and-so will be back on the slopes soon.’ Nordic skiers don’t ski on slopes…it robbed the story of a level of credibility…”. This respondent cited a concern expressed in a number of responses to the open-ended question about story reassignment: That not everyone in the newsroom has the expertise to cover sports, particularly ones outside of mainstream sports such as football and baseball. Another respondent cited a case where the news department wasn’t even paying attention to what the sports staff was working on: “When our local hockey team was having financial difficulties and made an announcement that folding was imminent, our news department reported it as ‘breaking news’ when the sports department had reported it days earlier.” Other responses suggested that the news department sought to get sports stories reassigned for coverage when slow news days occurred or even when broadcast competition time was approaching because “they [feel] they can win in the sports category were (sic) they can’t win in news.” These anecdotes seem to support Lowery’s view that subcultures within newsrooms are internally in competition with each other (2009). The study’s findings, however, does not allow the researchers to judge whether such conflicts were dealt with behind closed doors or whether such disputes became common knowledge among newsroom personnel.
Although this question garnered many anecdotes, few subjects discussed actual policy about reassigning stories. One sports director, for example, noted that he would be on during the news block if a sports story warranted such coverage. Another said sports stories would be turned over to the news department once a legal issue emerged, while the sports department did sidebar stories (e.g., how it’ll impact the team).
Some subjects bemoaned a lack of communication with their news colleagues when stories were reassigned: “What I don’t appreciate is a situation that is not communicated to us…If a news reporter has an idea or really wants to work on a story that’s sports related, then fine. However, at least let me or my staff know about it.” Schultz and Sheffer (2005) discussed this issue of faulty communications between those working sports and those in news, but it was news personnel expressing that sentiment about their sports colleagues.
The survey results and related subject comments also raises the question of whether there are consistent policies when stories are reassigned from the sports staff to the news staff and then the quality of story editing that takes place once the story is in production. Some of the responses suggest a scattershot approach is taken when stories are reassigned and that procedures should be established to ensure accuracy of reassigned stories. The overall question of reassigning stories also raises the question of what type of stories that the sports staff should cover. Rowe (2007) suggested that doing more stories that went beyond wins and losses might help improve the image of sports journalism. If stories that somehow cross the threshold of “hard news” are always being reassigned, the issue then becomes whether a station’s sportscasts are acting merely acting as a highlight playback machine.
In answering RQ3, the findings suggest sports directors regularly engage in journalistic practices as part of their job, and their sportscasts do indeed have “hard news” stories alongside the day’s scores and highlights. Although subjects suggested that they engaged frequently in professional development, they also reported far less attention was given to discussing ethical issues within their office. These findings should be considered in tandem with demographic information concerning education levels. Because nearly 60% of subjects reported receiving their college degree in journalism or broadcast journalism, it can be argued that Sports Directors do have the educational background to cover stories that transcend the playing field. Despite this level of educational experience, and regular engagement in journalistic practices, the ability of these sports directors to make editorial judgments is seemingly still in doubt based on other findings in this study. As noted above, news managers will reassign stories away from the sports department, sometimes with little consultation with those who have been covering that beat.
The findings, however, also revealed sports directors did not feel adequately prepared in regards to editorial decisions, including game coverage. As with any reporting or editing job, the ability to know the audience and the market being served is critical. The findings also suggest that as sports reporters, individuals may want to engage in more professional training to prepare for the time when they will be in an editorial- decision-making role. It could also be suggested that young sports reporters extend themselves to do more to expand their reporting capabilities beyond going out and shooting video of touchdown catches at the local high school football game. At a time when colleges and universities are expanding its sports media curricula, it is important for these programs to emphasize the reporting and editorial components of such programs. Current sports directors have a part to play in the maturation of those who will be advancing in the field, particularly via student internships.
Limitations and Future Research
As the authors identified this as being an exploratory study, it is obvious that the results carry both limitations and the need for more in-depth research. Limitations in this study include (a) participation of only sports personnel from television newsrooms and no responses from news producers, (b) the low response rate to the survey itself, and (c) trying to identify the aspects of a problem that has rarely been studied by those interested in electronic journalism, if ever.
These findings, however, do provide those interested in sports journalism on television with a starting point from which a better understanding of the dynamics between the sports and news departments can be formulated. Future research could examine the attitudes of news and sports personnel on some of the issues highlighted in this study (e.g., fact-checking sports stories reported by other newsroom staff). Such research would also help in understanding the two-way process of communicating in television newsrooms about the issues raised in this study. Another research goal would be to ascertain a theory (or theories) appropriate for the study of this question. One suggestion may be to utilize management-based theories as a way of better understanding internal conflicts between television sports and news departments.
This study’s results should also encourage further examination of what sports journalism is. There are numerous examples of studies questioning the legitimacy of sports journalism, yet there has been little research to define what does constitute sports journalism in the 21st century. As sports becomes a bigger part of our society, and as traditional news stories (e.g., crime, labor negotiations) continue sharing space with the accounts of events on the playing field, those concerned about the profession need to do more in better defining what constitutes the best practices of sports journalism and how to make such reporting relevant to audiences outside of the average sports fans.
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