Thursday, January 28, 2010

The "Media" Issue

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.


Greg said...

Thumbs up from me. I'm not saying that the conversation didn't happen exactly as described, but it struck me as at least slightly odd that:

1) It was Markov (notoriously quiet) speaking up.
2) Price's heart was being questioned after the game in which he tried to get in a fight.

Given those two facts, I expected more followup exactly as you describe - asking the players involved for comment etc.

I disagree on your contention that it's not in the public's interest though. The Habs have been very inconsistent, and a divided lockerroom could go some way to explaining it. If true, this very directly "improve(s) the public's understanding of an issue that affects their lives" in as much as following a sports team affects people's lives

J.T. said...

@Greg: You could argue it's in the public interest to know this if all the other conditions, including corroborated sources and balance, are fulfilled. Without those, the issue of public interest, even though it's the one condition of publication most ethically important, is moot. Since this incident was neither balanced nor reported with citable sources, public interest doesn't apply.

Kyle Roussel said...

This is an excellent blog post. As someone who has added his voice to the "mental repository", with no journalistic training (but considering getting some), this post brings all kinds of value to my day.

With regards to Marinaro's blog, I'm of 2 minds:

• His sources, unnamed as they are, both confirmed the story. Isn't one of the rules to also get a 2nd source? And perhaps it's a falsehood, but I see this all the time in newspapers: quotes from people who are cited under the request of anonymity. Are these publications being sketchy? What's the difference between that, and what Marinaro did?

• Was the story relevant for the fans to know? We sit here and dissect the team to pieces based on what we see. But what if we knew more than what we see with our own eyes? If his "report" is accurate, and there was a big split in the room, I think that's a relevant story that benefits the fans and their understanding of the team.

If, on the other hand, this story is blown out of proportion, then Marinaro has been made a fool of. If it really is a case of 1 guy calling out another...then this was a shameful waste of time.

This certainly does not help the Canadiens with UFAs, that's for sure.

To discuss rule #4 further, and to take it to another (if not more dangerous level), did we have the right to know what former Pres. Clinton did with Lewinsky? Presumably getting favours from one of the young ladies in the office didn't interfere with the Americans People's liberties. Was that case overblown? I don't want to mix political figures and athletes, but isn't the principle the same?

Anyway, what happens here for the Canadiens, happens in New York with the Yankees, and in L.A. with the Lakers, and in Dallas with the Cowboys.

I also wonder what the difference is between asking a coach or player what was said in a locker room after a poor period of hockey. Either we're privy to what goes on in there or we're not.

If the Canadiens are unappreciative of Marinaro's story, then quite simply they will stop talking to him. I think that someone willingly fed him the story says a lot.

Again, I'm making the assumption that the story is accurate.

Going all the way back to rule #1:
"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."

Can it not be argued that naming the source(s) could seriously damage their standing with their teammates, and with the league as a whole? Being labeled as a snitch is something that I would imagine could have you blacklisted fairly quickly, no?

As much as Marinaro said that he did not do this to boost his profile, he knows that the sheer act of saying on air it will bring him attention. It's kind of like saying "I ate 10 big macs because I was hungry, I didn't do it to put on weight".

Anyway, beyond the consequences of this report to the Canadiens, I'm looking forward to continuing this conversation. As I mentioned, as someone who is also blogging about sports, and often about the Habs, and as someone considering some formal training in journalism, I would love to continue exploring how the convergence of traditional journalism, social media is impacting sports coverage today.

For now though, I'm adding you to my blogroll. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything mentioned in your post except for the fact that this situation makes it hell for free agents. It's much worst for baseball players in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. What about football players in Green Bay, Boston or Dallas ? And what about most soccer teams in Europe and South America ?

Do free agents all want to avoid the media and play in Florida or Georgia ? If they prefer to perform their craft in a private environnement with few people in the stands, perhaps we don't need them, in Montreal.

Journalists are like any other workers. Many are real pros and others are not. It's the same situation in every media, in every cities.

To even bother with stories like this, one has to wonder if that person has even ever been in a dressing-room, a work environment or simply in a regular family. Far from being a professionnal athlete, I have nevertheless witnessed countless situations where WORDS were said, sometimes VERY LOUD and 99% of the time, everything was forgotten a few hours later.

The Oakland Aces of the early 70"s were reportedly always fighting and that did not prevent them to win a few championships.

Much ado about nothing as Voltaire (or was it that other brit guy ?) would have said.

Christopher Sama said...

Brilliant piece, J.T.

I listened, momentarily, to the Team 990 when "the story" broke. In response to criticism, Marinaro and Randy Tieman made the argument that it was there duty to report the news, whatever it may be.

They defended themselves as upstanding journalists who were supporting "their team - the Team 990". Which, in a way, is true. They were concerned about their ratings, their show and themselves. It is evident that they have very little respect for their subjects, their craft or their audience. The players - and their scandals - are ratings and we, us poor saps, are their dollar signs.

They undermined themselves, even, by arguing that their prime responsibility was to "get ratings". No, Randy, No Tony - your responsibility as journalists is to report the news accurately and responsibly.

And that you did not do, as J.T. so brilliantly points out.
You are not journalists. You are commentators, analysts at best - which is fine, just don't sell yourself as a journalist and don't sell your gossip as gospel.
It undermines the integrity and value of the news.

Sitting in a broadcast booth, away from the dressing room, Marinaro took some second-hand hearsay to manufacture publicity and ratings.
They are in the business - as they said - for the ratings. To make money. For themselves. And what sells? Controversey.

Marinaro and Tieman went on to say that other "reputable" media outlets like celebrity gossip site TMZ does not always have access to the celebrities but they still manage to break the stories. They exampled the Tiger Woods' scandal as hard-hitting journalism that TMZ covered.


There is too much reporting these days and too little news.
I have no problem if everyone in the world wants to weigh in on a subject - I do it everyday and I encourage others to as well - just don't disguise it for something that it's not.

Olivier said...

Well, Marinaro's brand of "journalism" has been in practice for quite some time now, talking heads animating and reporting hearsay and running with it, hiding themselves between the twin shields of "the public's right to know" (that you adressed) and my second, favorite one: "opinion".

Fact is, media-types (including journalists and "journalists") have a tremendous amount of air-time/web-hits/columns to fill nowadays. Even more insiduous is the fact that most of the time, the organisations they work for want as much of the time they pay for to result in "content", which means less time to actual fact-checking and research.

There is, if I'm not mistaken, a growing pressure on journalists: you got something? You fond something? Somebody told you something? Don't keep it to yourlself, waiting for it to turn into Moby Dick, air it out right now! And to hell with those "journalistic principles", it's not like journalists are members of a professional association who can punish them (and their employer!) if they don't go by the code...

And it's pervasive; a reporter will spend the day talking about a story on RDI talking about this or that "ongoing story". Marinaro really is, to my eyes that is, more a symptom of a larger shift that affect the whole information business. I'm too young to carp about he good ole times and say it's teh internets and news networks fault, but the general laissez-faire attitude of the media industry as a whole about those things really, really bugs me.

If it was just sports journalism, I wouldn't even care about it, but as I see it, it's the whole industry.


J.T. said...

@kyle: Thanks for your comments. To answer your points: yes, you should always have a second voice in any story. It adds depth and perspective, as well as balance. But I could say right now that I have two sources who confirm Tomas Plekanec has decided to test the free agent market. Do I? No. But I can say I do with no proof to the contrary. Or maybe my two sources are an usher at the Bell Centre who overheard Pleks say he wonders what he might be worth on the market, confirmed by the waiter at the pub down the street who asked Pleks over dinner whether he'd be staying in Montreal and was told, "You never know." Unless I tell you who my sources are, you, as my audience, don't know how credible they are. This is why good journalism is transparent. When you see a paper name "sources close to" or something similar, that's usually been approved by the editor or producer who knows who the sources are and is protecting them for their own good. In an instance like that, the audience must trust that the media outlet has a reputation for integrity and a high set of journalistic standards. The outlet itself must have proof of the sources, usually on tape, in the event that a lawsuit arises from the report. The evidence must be available to protect the journalist as well as provide credibility to his or her story.

IF there is a big split in the room, then it may be in the public interest of Habs fans to know that. But until the report has been verified by credible sources and balanced by asking the parties involved for their input, the issue of public interest is moot because there IS no story.

As for the Clinton/Lewinsky incident, well, we have a different idea of what's important for the public to know when it comes to public figures like politicians. In the States, there's a belief that a politician's personal behaviour reflects his moral standards when it comes to managing his public office. In Canada, we tend to be more inclined to a live and let live attitude. Politicians in this country have affairs and keep mistresses all the time and nobody really cares. We have deemed it's not in the public interest to report that.

As for asking a coach what happens in the room between periods, well, we have a right to ask. Whether the person chooses to tell us what goes on is another matter. But at least we asked, rather than speculated. And as for the players refusing to speak to Marinaro, I think this is exactly the problem. The players don't speak to him anyway. He's not around the team like a beat reporter is, and so he makes things up based on the flimsy word of his unidentified "sources."

AndyF said...

J.T., you're forgetting this isn't about anything that's really important -- it's a frickin' game, for goodness sakes. Sports "journalism" is the bubblegum of modern day current events. It's the circus of our "bread and circus".

We take it seriously because we are not sufficiently involved in the real communities in which we live. And I include myself in this. It's not reality -- it's entertainment. Sports isn't life-and-death, and sometimes we all forget this.

So who cares if Tony Marinaro served us up some candy. We don't really need the calories, but for most people it tasted pretty good...



Anonymous said...

"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"

Well said dude!!!!!!!!

Montreal media better smarten up!

Andrew Berkshire said...

I wish this was just a sports media problem, but sadly this is the way journalism is devolving all over the world. It's why the most popular news network is Fox News, even though I've never seen any news reported by the channel.

It's sad that people don't ask more questions when an unscrupulous story pops up.

L said...

All I can say is that this piece almost brought tears to my eyes as it restores my faith that somewhere out there is someone who is interested in responsible journalism. Your writing is often amusing, often challenging but it gives me no end of joy to think it comes from the heart of a hard core journalist. Well done, J.T.!

J.T. said...

@AndyF: Sure, sports are not life and death most of the time. But I'll argue that the people who play the games and the people whose living it is to report about sports take it pretty seriously. Also, some of the best literature and most thought-provoking journalism I've read has been about sports. Like anything else, its quality is dependent on the art and talent a person brings to it. Sport isn't life in itself, but it reflects life in the passion and devotion it inspires.

And I'll also argue that a person can be quite involved in the community while being a sports fan. Everyone needs an escape from the serious stuff, and there's nothing wrong with loving a sports team that provides that escape for you.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I hope you send this to TSN, it should be required reading for all these guys.

Sports journalism may not be important to the greater public interest, but it is big business with real people,real reputations and careers. If I was Price and this turns out not to be true, I would want Marinaro's nuts in a sling. There was a radio guy fired in Ottawa a few years back because he joked that Domi probably beats his wife. Maybe Marinaro should be taught a lesson as well by losing his paycheck, there is nothing like consequences to inspire the values mentioned in this post.

Number31 said...

I'm still waiting for the Habs, the Kostitsyns, and Roman Hamrlik to sue certain members of the media for that "scandal" about some guy they knew who threw great parties turned out to be a mafia drug dealer. It was non-news reported when the team was enduring a tough slump, and gross character assassination, of which Hamr had to endure even in his home country. And they STILL talk about that "scandal" today (whenever the brothers face a slump or some such problems) as if it were fact when it was absolutely nothing.

Hey, if the Flyers can threaten to sue some blogger over allegations that Carter slept with Hartnell's wife and caused a divide in the room, why not the Habs?

Topham said...

Spot on JT.

It's amazing though you got through the whole piece without mentioning twitter.

I follow Dave Stubbs on twitter, and one of the most professional and thoughtful journalists around is turned into a rabid rumour-monger at times. He certainly says a lot that wasn't properly thought through. The fact that not everyone will follow his backtrackingfor the next half a day is something he should probably keep in mind before pressing "tweet" in the first place.

Speaking of tenet #4 of journalism, how do you feel about practice being covered at all? i think it's a detriment. I tried to make that clear on my recent blog post.

Cheers JT on the piece. I hope many fans heed your sage advice.

AndyF said...

@J.T. There's my point. It's just an escape from the serious stuff, as you put it. It's not the actual serious stuff.

So big deal. The candy tastes like vanilla instead of chocolate. I care about my sports, too, but I don't confuse it with reality. Tony sells candy. You blog about candy. I eat candy. :-)

Chris said...

JT Thank you for giving voice to what has been rattling around in my head in fluid fashion for a while now. Excellent piece - should be required reading for both reporters, bloggers and twitbloggers.

Twitter is making the race to be first and the race to catch up even more heated then it was and the result has been a lot of sketchy dirt posts that do nothing more than further damage player relations.

24 Cups said...

As the fate of print journalism dies a slow but inevitable death, the new world of internet news evolves at a rapid pace without any real framework, ethical principles or governing bodies. It's too late to close the gate now as all the horses have left the barn.

Only the power of the readership audience will dictate what moral course this new form of media will take. Here's hoping that the lowest common denominator doesn't win out.

Entertainment Tonight. Hear all about it.

Lyse said...

Brilliant post, once more.

I wish there were more professionals like you. I do follow Dave Stubbs and Marc Antoine Godin for the exact same reasons.

And shame on Michel Bergeron! (sorry about that, just had to vent...)

moeman said...

Excellent read. Imagine f some of the actual media types could write this well.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I am sooooo tired of nobodies like Tony Marinaro behaving as if they were authorities in any form, shape or manner. And all of the media attention surrounding the Habs is completely out of control. There are literally dozens of grown men on t.v. every night making racist, discrminatory remarks under the guise of reporting, churning out complete nonsense and trying to convince the audience that it is fact. And the worst of it is, people buy it.

Sad, very sad.

Anonymous said...

JT I should start by saying i thoroughly enjoy your blog and writing.

But As the old saying goes Opinions are like @#$%. So for you to say that you have two sources about Plekanecs wanting to test the free agent market, the readers of this blog have no way of knowing if someone spoke to you on the condition of anonymity or not. It could be that you are the journalist that was fortunate/unfortunate to get this information and it was up to you to decide to run with it or not.It could be that you have a great relationship to Donald Beauchamp or your cousin knows someone in the front office. It is up to you whether or not your standards prevent you from running with the story and if you deem the source as credible then you may decide to proceed with the story.

Marinaro is not at all obligated to reveal his sources but it should be questioned on whether it is wise to talk or engage in trade speculation/ or disect the minutiae of every Habs practice- whether it be an altercation or team mates getting into a heated face wash exchange.

So whether or not he had one or two sources is irrelevant - he ran with the story and it is up to the listeners to decide if what he says on air is credible or not.