I am a hockey fan, and have been since I was eleven years old. I'm a hockey blogger because I love the sport, am passionately devoted to the Canadiens and need to vent about it in writing. By trade though, I'm a journalist.
It was as a journalist that I watched with disgusted dismay as a radio broadcaster in Montreal abused the trust of his listeners and planted a seed of rumour that blossomed into a weed of scandal. Yesterday, as you likely know by now, Tony Marinaro of The Team 990 informed his audience he'd been told by unnamed sources that Andrei Markov had confronted Carey Price in the dressing room following last Wednesday's loss to St.Louis. Marinaro, still without naming sources, even had a quote. "Play with heart or go home. We don't want you here," he claimed Markov said. He went on to describe how the incident has divided the Habs' room between Price and Markov supporters. The "match it or you're falling behind" mentality of many other media outlets, including RDS and TSN immediately jumped on it, running it as a news highlight, with Marinaro as the source.
Disgust is a mild word to describe my reaction to this sequence of events. When I was taught the fundamentals of journalism, there were four inviolable rules.
First, always name your sources unless there's a compelling reason not to do so, such as the source's personal safety or livelihood being at risk as a consequence of speaking to the media. In those cases, it's paramount that permission be granted by the editor or producer to run the story without naming the sources, and the person who grants that permission must know the identities of the sources and be satisfied they're credible.
Second, always balance the story. A reputable reporter should never go to press or air with a story before at least calling the subject of any accusations to get their side of things. The subject has the right to refuse comment, and if they do, the reporter is obliged to let the audience know an attempt was made to achieve journalistic balance.
Third, never take another publication's word for anything. Reporters are human and different outlets have different journalistic standards. Not everyone gets the story right or reports it ethically and repeating someone else's story without doing the legwork yourself means you're accepting the standards of another reporter as your own.
Fourth, and most importantly, determine whether the public has a right to know the information. Journalists are meant to serve the public by providing information that's in the people's best interest to know. That issue comes with many ethical questions, but fundamentally comes down to whether the information the journalist knows would improve the public's understanding of an issue that affects their lives, reveal a wrong committed or answer a question people are asking.
In the case of Marinaro, he failed to name sources which immediately reduced the credibility of the story. He also failed to balance it. He didn't ask Carey Price or Andrei Markov for their take on what happened, or if anything even did happen. Right away, Marinaro showed himself to be not much more than a rumour monger. What he's doing is certainly not journalism. The problem with this, of course, is two-fold. The media feeding-frenzy around the Canadiens requires many others to jump on the story for fear of being left behind and missing something juicy. And the people who listen to the program take what Marinaro says as truth because he's got the platform to spread his rumour on the radio.
It shocked me yesterday to read so many fan comments that focussed on whether Markov was right or wrong to call Price out after that game. Very, very few people asked the basic and essential question: How do we know this story is even true? Most people accepted what Marinaro said just because he said it on the radio. More shameful, however, was the acceptance of the story by supposedly reputable media outlets. TSN, at least, informed the audience that the Canadiens had refused comment on the issue, which indicated that the network had attempted to verify the story. But it still held a panel discussion about the possible state of the Habs' dressing room, based entirely on what Marinaro had to say. That's irresponsible at best.
Of greater concern though, is the complete disregard of cardinal rule number four. Nobody involved in this asked whether the public has a right to know this story. So, let's ask it here. Does the public have a right to know about a conversation between two hockey players behind closed doors? In other words, what purpose does broadcasting the details of that conversation serve? As far as I can see, the information doesn't improve public understanding of any issue. It doesn't reveal wrongdoing, and it doesn't address a question of public concern. Knowing Andrei Markov may have called out Carey Price does not improve the lives of hockey fans in any way. On the other hand, it pushes an already struggling team into the national spotlight for unpleasant reasons. It creates questions about the unity of the team and puts players on the spot. It helps make the kind of toxic environment players aren't sad to leave and few others are willing to join. When Tony Marinaro announced this story, he wasn't serving the public interest. He was serving his own. Since his broadcast, his name has been on the front page of TSN's website and discussed by its panelists. He's being quoted by all his rivals on radio. What fun for him!
This sort of bottom-feeding, malicious spreading of rumours isn't journalism, but is increasingly being mistaken for it. I read a comment online the other day, to the effect that newspapers and on-the-ground reporters will soon be replaced by internet fora. What a mistaken point of view. Without the on-the-ground journalists, we have no witnesses and we have no access. We are then captives of the Tony Marinaros of the world, who have little contact with the subjects about whom they gossip. If the Canadiens have news to report, honest journalists will report it. If they don't, rumour-mongers will make up stories to titillate their audiences.
The line between blogging and serious reporting is becoming increasingly blurry these days, and that's a big problem for journalists. When I blog, I'm not required to maintain the standards of journalism. I'm free to write opinions, rants or parodies and not have them be mistaken for actual news reports. When I'm reporting, I have much stricter guidelines and standards governing what I write. The problem is, with the sheer volume of material available to people online and on the airwaves, it tends to get dumped into a single mental repository and it gets tougher to distinguish between rumour and truth. That does a grave disservice to those reporters who *do* follow journalistic standards and actually make sure what they're reporting is the truth.
People like Marinaro, who broadcast things the public doesn't need to know, and do so without any sort of journalistic checks and balances make Montreal a hell for players. So, next time you wonder why free agents won't sign with the Canadiens or young players developed by the organization are relieved when they leave the team, look no further than your friendly neighbourhood gossips. The only way to stop them is to stop giving them credibility, and that means making yourself a responsible member of the audience. You need to examine whether the person giving you the information is following guidelines of good journalism. You have to ask questions like whether the reporter is telling you where he or she got the information they're passing on to you. Are there reputable sources named? You have to decide if there's balance in the story and whether both sides are presented. And you have to ask yourself whether the information you're hearing is something you really need to know. Who benefits from the story you're being told?
Once you determine which sources you respect and believe, the best thing you can do is ignore the ones who don't fit that description. A drop in their following can send the message that we don't appreciate their tactics and we don't like what they're doing to our team.