Conference 2000: Sports Journalism
“Why is sports journalism an oxymoron?”
by E.W.Mason M.Ed, Senior Lecturer in Communication, UNITEC,
A paper presented to the Journalism
Education Association of New Zealand Annual Conference, University
Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. November 30 – December 1,
The basic premise of my discussion here is that
journalism and sport journalism are two separate areas of media work which
demonstrate, to a certain degree, incompatible values, work cultures and
professional outlooks. These differences impact significantly on news
production, content selection and the place of objectivity in
The original idea came from a reference in
Itule (1994 p.461) to American newspaper sports as “ the toy department.”
If, as Itule implies, mainstream news journalists regard their sports
reporter colleagues as something less than ‘real’ journalists then here is
a fruitful field for research and debate. It may also be worth studying
the views of news consumers in this area.
If journalism can
be defined as breaking stories and finding and reporting news then it may
be that the perceived difference between ‘real’ news and sports news is
the subject of what is being reported rather than any significant
divergence in reporting methods and professional values. Thus, if sport is
play then sports journalism is also a form of play.
would, in my view, be far too simple to provide a satisfying explanation.
I will argue that traditional work practices based on ‘round’ reporting
(Lowes 1999 p.98) and the entertainment ethic which has influenced all
media work (O’Neill 1994 p.11) combine to influence sports journalism more
than mainstream reporting.
Media ownership patterns,
commercial and technological convergence, (Herman & McChesney p.63-4,
75-7) social and personal attitudes to the place of sport in society all
work to influence and direct sports journalism to an orientation which is
often more entertainment than news.
McNair (1998 p.6) is adamant that the field of “journalism
……. is essentially ideological – a communicative vehicle for the
transmission to an audience (intentionally or otherwise) not just of facts
but of the assumptions, attitudes, beliefs and values of its maker(s),
drawn from and expressive of a particular world-view.” From this highly
academic and theoretical viewpoint sports journalism is not an oxymoron
since sports journalism is ideological and reflects power relations in
I take the view that mainstream journalism, while
ideological in the sense McNair describes, has more capacity for
resistance through its internalised values than sports journalism which
long ago was seduced by the entertainment and boosterish ethic which
reflects the sports entertainment industry.
the general writing accessed for this paper is North American so one could
expect an outlook which accepts journalism as a profession with a
significant, not to say crucial role to play in creation and nurturing of
an informed democratic citizenry. The ideals of a pluralistic, liberal
democratic society are embodied in the mainstream journalistic values of
political neutrality, objectivity and balance (Tucker 1999
This “competitive paradigm” (McNair p.19) may
be taken as the point from which to begin a study of sports journalism.
The pressures of modern, post-industrial societies militate against the
ideals to which mainstream journalists and editors subscribe. The
relentless impact of media mergers and acquisitions, marketing and public
relations value sets and deregulated corporate power all conspire to
undermine both directly and insidiously the original pluralist
Sports departments are least well placed to
resist since they have, in fact, been the least likely to want to resist.
It’s not a problem if you can’t recognise it.
Entertainment values, local identification,
boosterism, hero worship and a reluctance to undermine the collective or
individual pressures of rabid ‘fandom’ have all weakened the commitment of
sports departments to balanced and objective
Lowes asserts that “Sports news is
ideological precisely because it constitutes a discourse that serves the
promotional interests of the major-league sports industry’s primary
stakeholders. … This means that there is little room for news that doesn’t
promote the industry.”(p.99) Lowes is here defining news as copy. The
impact of such a conclusion for reporters must be “why write it if it
doesn’t get printed?”
It could be argued that in some senses
journalism in the sports milieu is near impossible. After all, what kind
of New Zealander is unenthusiastic about the All Blacks, Kiwis, David Tua,
the Silver Ferns and so on? Nationalism in the form of the inclusive
pronoun ‘we’ is an uncomfortable mix of marketing, patriotism, populist
identification and ‘me-too-ism’ which infects and overwhelms the sports
pages, radio and especially television.
Zealand Herald has assigned mainstream reporters and feature writers to
sports stories. The Kevin Herlihy fraud feature and the important
investigative story about the poaching of rugby stars in Auckland
high schools first appeared in the general news or features pages. It
would be worthwhile to find out why the sports department didn’t write
them. Could it be sports journalists aren’t seen by the hierarchy as up to
the task of real journalism or that the sports department is so
compromised by association and identification with sport that it is
incapable of taking an objective view. The issue merits further New
McNair (p.27) directly sums up Chomsky and
Herman’s ‘propaganda model’ in which a conglomeration of elites
“subordinates the media to its own interests and controls information
Discourses of the powerful may become routine discourses in
the media. If they coincide with already existing beliefs in the sports
department about the value of competition and the importance of suffering
pain for advantage then the corporate message is reinforced and further
promulgated through an approved outlet and in relation to a highly valued
subject. (Lowes p.99) Balance and fairness are
dysfunctional beliefs in such a universe. Nonetheless it seems to me that
one of the New Right’s greatest achievements of the past decade or more is
to get its discourse at centre stage in all political discussion. In a way
New Right discourse has become so ‘normalised’ in the media that some
terms such as reform have totally changed meanings but retained the
positive connotations of the past. ‘Regulation’, on the other hand, has
taken on a sinister
connotation lacking two decades ago.
“This is to suggest that a newspaper account, far from simply
reflecting the reality of a news event, is actually working to construct a
codified definition of what should count as the reality of the event.”
(Allan 1999 p.87) Sports news consumers find themselves accepting the
media’s views including its selective coverage decisions as ‘common
Of course these corporate pressures apply to
mainstream news gathering and presentation as well but the capacity for
resistance is greater, perhaps because the subjects being reported (
politics, crime, economics, international and public affairs ) are
regarded as more intrinsically important by citizens/consumers and even
the people gathering the ‘news’ themselves.
Mullen and Mazzocco’s (2000 p.348) focus on the gridiron Super Bowl
shows the biggest sports events “increasingly symbolise(s) the goals,
values and culture of the corporate-based society where the pursuit of
profit amid an abundant myth of winners and losers is played out on the
sports field of battle.”
Sport has become a media commodity and an important, even
critical, part of the content being delivered to the
readership/viewership. In fact the relationship is quite complex since an
argument can be made that the sports pages create as well as sustain the
fan interest which, in turn, requires regular feeding in the form of an
endless stream of stories, snippets, photos and statistics. (Lowes
This ‘morselisation’ contributes to the pervasive
belief that discussion of sport is shallow and trivial. The journalistic
desire to “dig deeper” meets the perceived thinness and barrenness of the
soil. “Shorter stories inevitably mean less context and less
analysis to help readers or listeners understand what’s really at
stake.” (Lieberman 2000 p.10)
The corporate universe
establishes the context of modern sports journalism but does not go the
entire way towards explaining why, or even if, sports journalism is an
oxymoron. We still need to conduct further research into the work
practices and professional outlooks of practitioners.
Sports reporting work is similar to much corporate employed work.
Workers have specified tasks and work routines which produce a measurable
product in a professionally acceptable format. There is a hierarchy and
culture of behaviour and belief assigning values to people and product.
Reporters report stories emanating
from their assigned round. In the case of major professional sports such
as rugby, cricket, league, netball, America’s Cup and, increasingly,
soccer, a major news outlet will assign a reporter to cover the round
almost to the exclusion of other sports. This is where the issue of what,
in an education and health care context, has been called ‘provider
Sports Journalism 6.
Leitch wrote in
Whose News? “That the news media are so heavily reliant upon a few
dominant sources may generally act to reinforce existing power structures
in society.” (Leitch 1992 p.158) Reporters can become dependent on sources
to the extent that loss of access to key sources can cost a reporter’s
job. Sports Illustrated’s Rick Telander says “Beat reporters are useless
if nobody talks to them.”( Lowes p.80.)The recent case
(October-November,2000) of NZ Herald cricket writer Richard Boock’s
contretemps with NZ Cricket is a case in point.
Lowes (p.82) gets to the heart of the matter when he quotes
leading Canadian sports columnist Dick Beddoes on the state of sports
journalism. “ I believe there is still a tendency amongst sports reporters
to slant news in favour of the home team, to defer to local sports
management for the sake of maintaining cordial working relationships, and
to accept publicity handouts in place of digging for their own
How has this state of affairs come about?
Sports reporters, coaches and players work odd and long hours. Tours throw
people together who might otherwise not socialise at all. A symbiotic
relationship develops which has the effect of marginalising the
traditional news values which news consumers still expect. Coaches,
owners, public relations operatives and reporters share experience and
perhaps, eventually, a world view that major sports are an important, even
crucial, part of life, society and the economy. (Lowes p.81)
A related issue as an aside : Do sports ‘news’ consumers expect
traditional news values or entertainment news? Perhaps they expect both
but only get the latter. Surely this is a field for some qualitative
research. The sports news media’s perceived notions about its readership
may be inaccurate or incomplete. “Journalists construct news account(s)
against a backdrop of assumptions about the social world which they expect
readers to share. (Allan p.92)
Sports Journalism 7.
Who is the readership? How
do they think? What do they value? Who knows? Current research is directly
related to marketing and advertising sales rather than a desire to know
One result of the beat system means that
minor sports get little or no coverage whatsoever. In a professionalised
sports universe some quite substantial New Zealand sports codes such as
softball, athletics, hockey and swimming only get significant space in the
sports pages during Olympic or Commonwealth Games campaigns. The rest of
the time stringers fill the agate in what the Sunday News heads as Club
Sport or the NZ Herald calls Details.
sports such as equestrian and rowing appear as the exception. It would be
interesting to investigate the relation of the amount of regular coverage
to their elite status and heritage of Olympic success. Perhaps the recent
tabloid fodder provided by equestrian is an aberration rather than the
norm in allocating space to elite sport. In fact most of the ‘news’ in the
Mark Todd case was on the front news pages rather than the sports
Soccer coverage in Auckland makes a good
recent case study of changed coverage which proves the rule. The advent of
the soccer Kingz as a professional Trans-Tasman competitor in Australia’s
National Soccer League has resulted in regular and significant space for
soccer in the major print media.
It has also brought
enhanced space and mana for reporters who previously had soccer as part of
a multi-sport reporting brief. Soccer reporting is now a New Zealand job
An earlier case of the same phenomenon is the
Auckland ( now New Zealand ) Warriors. A professional Winfield Cup
franchise led to Rugby League claiming a significantly enhanced media
profile and created a new class of League round reporters who did not
previously justify the expense. In a sense the marketing machine created
the media jobs.
Prior to 1992 when the professional franchise was first
mooted League fans needed a magnifying glass to find the Sydney scores.
Now the minutiae of contracts, game statistics, betting odds, match
reviews and previews take up entire pages in the print media and nightly
reports on television. This flow of material is directly related to the
beat system of reporting, thus a function of media work practices as much
as public demand.
There has been no shortage of on and
off field disasters to keep the Rugby League beat reporters busy and the
reading public with something to read and discuss over the water cooler.
What has been missing from the sports pages is any discussion about the
desirability of keeping the corpse alive. The sports reporting fraternity
along with local politicians, corporate leaders and media magnates seem
agreed, at least tacitly, that having a professional sports franchise in a
Trans-Tasman competition is a good thing.
The emphasis has
been on entrepreneur Eric Watson and his celebrity lifestyle. No one seems
to know what he ’s worth, $150 million or $200 million ( both figures
appeared in the Herald in the same week ) or what he will commit to the
Warriors ’ future but we know his wife is a former lingerie model, he owns
top quality racehorses and is mates with television/sports personality
There is little or no indication in the
sports pages that sport is just another form of content on television much
like movies, news, comedy and even pornography. The celebrity and
entertainment values are overwhelming. The next case may well be
Australian Rules which has staged successful pre-season matches in
Wellington and recently announced $450,000 in support for the New Zealand
Australian Rules body over the next three years.
Sports Journalism 9.
The New Zealand
body has just completed a three year,$300,000 contract to develop the code
in New Zealand. At one time last year Aussie Rules was the only
free-to-air live televised sport in the country.
what we have set out here is truly the case we may expect expanded Rules
coverage in the print media as a direct result of a larger investment by
the sport ’s governing body.
However the media
perception is that the sport must be major league to merit serious space.
The fact that Rules is by far number one in Australia has not penetrated
the local sports media ’s consciousness. Most seem to think Rugby League
is the top code despite the overwhelming verifiable, statistical evidence
to the contrary.
This begs the question of the role of
public demand for sports coverage. Most of what we have assessed so far in
this paper has to do with what will be supplied to the passive
readership/viewership. Marketers will tell us that the public demand is
theirs to create.
Sports Illustrated once wrote of
American professional sports league promoter Gary Davidson that “he was
always willing to meet the demand for something which nobody asked for. ”
Essentially what the sports pages do is help create and sustain the
demand. It is good for the newspaper proprietor, the sports reporters and,
eventually, the reading public once they realise this is something they
wanted all along.
So what is missing from the sports
pages which offers at least prima facie evidence that sports journalism is
an oxymoron? Most glaring is the absence of any real discussion about the
role of sport in society other than the manufactured debates about why we
didn’t win at the Olympics, who should be the All Black captain, whether
Mark Todd should have come clean about his private life or most recently,
why David Tua didn’t throw a punch.
Sports Journalism 10.
Sport history is proffered as a
series of mostly unrelated statistics and anecdotes. Larger than life
characters, laddish tour stories, tabloid stories of loss and redemption
dominate space to the exclusion of reflection and information.The booming
tertiary sports education industry and its challenges are largely ignored
by all media.
The advent of Radio Sport shows
that public demand for debate is a vast maw waiting to be satisfied. The
problem is that all that energy, interest and intelligence is not being
satisfied by a sports press which has failed so abjectly to analyse the
subject it purports to analyse. Unfortunately Radio Sport offers more of
the same lack of consideration for a broader intelligence about
Sports media consumers have little to go on if
they want to debate wider issues, dare we say, political issues, to do
The reform of the NZ Herald Business
section shows that business news consumers want and can handle a higher
level of debate and use the media to support and develop
There appears no sign that the sports press has
any such plans. Proprietors and editors seem to think business is a
serious issue; sport is a diversion or a way to sell the media brand by
association. The cultivation (Griffin 1997 p. 359) of the sports media
consumer to see sport as professional, nationalistic, entertaining and
supportive of corporate values may have gone so far that consumers might
demand the current diet if the sports media tried to vary it. This is a
fruitful area for future research.
Sports journalism is an
oxymoron precisely because the widely accepted journalistic qualities of
fairness, balance, intellect and insight are so often lacking. In fact
those qualities seem to be less acceptable than ever because they operate
against a background of entertainment-oriented, personalised news.