Raymond Boyle is a professor at the Stirling Media Research Institute at Stirling University and the author of Sports Journalism: Context and Issues, recently published by Sage, London.
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Sports journalism often receives a bad press. It has been characterised as the
quintessential “toy department” of journalism, a bastion of sloppy and lazy
journalistic practice that is divorced from the rigorous constraints applied to
other areas of the trade. Often this critique has been well merited. Yet what
constitutes sports journalism or, more accurately, journalism about sports, is
changing. The last decade or so has seen a substantial expansion of this area of
journalism across print, broadcasting and online media. Driven by a more
market-oriented media culture and enabled by technological innovation,
there is now more journalism about sports available than ever. As television
has become the financial underwriter of elite sport, the print media has
expanded its coverage as it seeks to attract and retain readers.
This expansion in journalism about sports has been most marked in what used to be called the broadsheet end of the market, where sports journalism has become an increasingly important part of the brand identity of newspapers such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. As sports industries – the football industry in particular – have mushroomed, so sports news and analysis have leaked beyond its traditional “back of the book” home on to the City, features and news pages. In mid July The Observer devoted almost two pages of its Business and Media section to sports related stories. One dealt with the increasing uncertainty surrounding the finances of Manchester United, while the other examined the economic legacy for Greece of the Athens Olympics staged in 2004. The commercialisation of sport, driven by the media, means that there can no longer be a simple concern with what happens on the field of play. However, despite the growth in the range of journalism about sports there remains at its core a tension surrounding the complicit nature of much sports journalism. For some, sports journalists have too frequently been the cheerleaders for sport, often travelling, as Tom Humphries of The Irish Times suggests, “too close to the circus”.
While the sports industry has always had a pantheon of heroes and villains that have been created by sports journalism, the explosion of media outlets and the related expansion of journalism associated with sports have helped both to feed and fuel this developing celebrity culture. The move from a supply (regulated) media culture to a more demand-led (re-regulated) media culture has helped enable the growth and explosion of coverage in particular sports, such as football, that have been a key element of media content in this new age of plenty.
As money flowed into the elite end of sport and the attendant commercial and corporate interest in associating brands with elite sports and sport stars has developed, this has been accompanied by the growth in the power and influence of agents, image consultants and public relations managers. These groups act as a buffer between the stars and public. They also attempt to manage the image of their clients across the range of media platforms that have helped facilitate the pace, scale and shape of contemporary celebrity culture. While sports stars are differentiated from other stars of the celebrity terrain – in that an element of talent and skill is required to become a sports star – there are also growing similarities between the culture of elite sports people and those in other areas of the entertainment industry.
Limited accessAs television dominates live sport and usurps the printed word, so differing stories from the sports world require to be generated. The digital age has also seen concerns over image rights. Media management and branding mean that PR techniques, often more common in the film and television industries, become increasingly commonplace in sports. As a result the sports journalist as “insider” is no longer an accurate picture in a trade undergoing significant change. There is universal agreement among sports journalists that one of the most significant changes in recent years has been the limiting of access to the key players in the world of sports. Television and corporate money have created a generation of sporting millionaires, often in their early 20s, so the informal social contact between sports people and journalists, much beloved of the previous generations of journalists, has ended. Want an interview with a top, London-based French footballer? The club may be happy to allow you access, but you will need to clear it with the player's agent as well as those representing his core sponsors. You can speak to him, but he may want copy, picture and even headline approval, and also a hefty fee. In the increasingly overtly commercial world of media sport, largely anodyne interviews in the sports, features or magazine pages of the print media often appear to be adverts for a range of endorsed products. Secure an interview with Michael Owen, but make sure some explicit references to the sponsor organising access, such as Tissot watches, appears in the piece. On top of this, players may want to hold back information to be carried exclusively on their websites (often, of course, lifted by journalists and recycled elsewhere). Within these constraints even the most experienced of journalist can struggle to turn a turgid PR-staged interview into anything remotely insightful. Richard Williams, sportswriter at The Guardian, recalls waiting for his allotted 20 minutes with a sports star, only for him to turn up 10 minutes late. He suggests that the time spent gives little opportunity “to look into someone's soul”.
While some sports journalists lament the passing of the more informal network of contacts – a theme that finds an echo among journalists in other areas, such as crime reporting – the commercially-based set-up has, in other ways made life easier. As sports organisations have become more media and image-aware, press conferences, photo calls and such have all helped to formalise and make more routine a large part of the flow of information. Some sports, such as Formula 1 motor racing, exert an extensive stranglehold on the image of the sport through public relations, and control access with the tacit acceptance of a core of journalists who cover the F1 circuit, while at other sports, such as golf, journalists can cover the event without ever having to leave a media centre where they are spoon-fed material from which they can build their stories.
The expansion in the space and time devoted to sports journalism across media platforms has also fuelled the growth of that distinctive branch of sports journalism: punditry. This usually involves current or former stars giving their opinions to unnamed journalists who write-up the ghosted pieces. One of the most interesting aspects of the court case in the summer of 2005, when Liverpool player Harry Kewell sued Gary Lineker and The Sunday Telegraph for remarks made in Lineker's column, was the newspaper having to admit in court that Lineker had not in fact written the article. The case was also significant in that it signalled the willingness of sport stars to sue newspapers for back page sports-related comment, rather than the front part of a newspaper interested in their off-the-field activity.
The recent World Cup saw an avalanche of “star” opinions being offered in print and online, many columns simply rehashing what the pundits has already said on television. In an increasingly commercial media environment, these star names often come carrying commercial endorsements. Thus during the World Cup, The Times carried columns by Alan Shearer, a brand ambassador for Continental Tyres, and Sir Geoff Hurst, director of football for McDonald's. This form of advertorial journalism is, of course, not unique to sports coverage, but it is becoming increasingly prevalent as the terms for access to sports stars are continually re-negotiated.
Amid the dross, however, there is more good writing and journalism about sport than there used to be. Among the pundits during the World Cup, Wigan manager Paul Jewell's pieces in The Guardian stood out because of a combination of his astute insightful analysis and his fearlessness in expressing an opinion that might upset others in the game. Too many journalists and former sports people abdicate their responsibility to report honestly because they may upset important people or damage their own career trajectory.
His role as writerOthers do appreciate that to be involved in journalism at any level involves crossing a line. The Irish journalist, broadcaster and former professional football player Eamon Dunphy has noted that when in the 1970s he was asked to write a column for a local London paper – he was playing for Millwall – the journalist sent along to speak with to was such an idiot he decided to write it himself. It took Dunphy three weeks to write his first column, but it launched him on a career in journalism where he has always been clear that his role is to inform his readers and speak on their behalf, rather than simply to reproduce what he calls the “soft consensus” that often exists among sports journalists. (An over reliance on star pundits, who often add little real insight, also suggests a failure of nerve among editors to back a range of sports journalists offering insight, analysis and, when needed, an investigative edge to their pages.)
If the print media have been viewed as the home of sports journalism, then television and radio coverage of sport has often been classified as a form of broadcasting entertainment rather than journalism. Much sports broadcasting remains a form of journalism, but informed by a hybrid of values drawn from television entertainment conventions as much as from those of journalism. Roger Mosey, Head of Sport at the BBC, has indicated that he wants to strengthen the journalistic core at the heart of BBC Sport. On the evidence of overall BBC television coverage of the World Cup, he has a considerable job on his hands.
Over the last few years, sports broadcasting, from athletics to football, has become less journalistically driven and increasingly populated by former sports stars with little or no background in journalism. Framed by entertainment rather than journalistic values and with too many vested interests involved, football coverage on television tends now to be driven by soft opinion rather than hard analysis. Television often appears to see its role as promoting sport, rather than reporting, investigating and analysing. The BBC was particularly guilty of this in their coverage from Germany, where ex-players in particular were singularly unable – or unwilling – to cut through the media-generated hyperbole surrounding the England team and examine the pragmatic realities of a limited and under-performing team.
The England v Ecuador match provided some striking examples of the extent to which television broadcasting is often happy to adopt the role of cheerleader. It also highlighted how BBC radio coverage of sport appears to retain a greater journalistic edge than its television counterpart. On TV, Lineker, Hansen and Shearer all offered positive comments regarding the England performance and that of Michael Carrick in particular. For Shearer, Carrick was “brilliant, absolutely magnificent”; for Hansen, “man of the match”. But a more analytical analysis on Radio Five Live lambasted the team's performance, highlighting key areas of under-performance.
Lest we think it is something intrinsic in the medium of television that neuters its journalistic edge, one simply has to watch coverage of such events on the Irish State broadcaster, RTE. From Dublin, former current affairs journalist Bill O'Herlihy chaired RTE's coverage with studio pundits Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady, who gave an insightful dissection of the match, castigating a poor England performance free from any concerns about upsetting people in the game. Even Graeme Souness, who joined them, seemed transformed by this more robust, cliché-free environment. He argued that Michael Carrick, Hansen's man of the match, had “not done enough to stay in the side” (an observation that turned out to be accurate). Much of what passes for journalism in British television coverage of football exists within an all-too-cosy network of ex-players and current managers. The few journalists involved seem unprepared to risk upsetting this closed world by asking difficult questions.
Surely sports broadcasting is too important to be left solely to ex-athletes and players at a time when, as sport becomes bigger and more complex, there has never been a greater need for journalistic rigour? Sport, with its mixture of entertainment, drama and news values, offers a particular challenge for journalists in their need both to inform and entertain in an increasingly fastpaced news environment while addressing an increasingly knowledgeable audience. Sport continues to offer a range of compelling narratives for the 21st century, and despite the rise of television coverage, print sportsjournalists remain the key narrator of that ongoing story. As sport remains a central aspect of contemporary popular culture, the commercial value to newspapers of sports journalism and of expert sports journalists, will continue to escalate. The challenge for these journalists is to offer uncomplicit, informative and entertaining journalism against the backdrop of an increasingly commercial and privatised media system.
In such an environment, the need for sports journalism to question, investigate and call to account the powerful within sports, and its attendant political and commercial culture, will become even more acute. Sports journalism, particularly in the press, has correctly been criticised for its lack of investigative edge over the years and this remains true, even if the decline in investigative journalism is not unique to sports coverage. Hopefully, the next generation of sports journalists is likely to write and broadcast about sport and its cultural impact as not simply narrowly-focused sports journalists. For while sport, at its core, remains an essentially banal, trivial and ephemeral pursuit, it also exposes, in a very public manner, some of the wider narratives and stories that sustain communities, identities and a society's sense of itself.
Sports journalism offers a microcosm of many of the wider challenges and issues being faced by journalists and journalism in many areas. It has to deal with the rise of public relations; the impact of changing technology on practice; the challenge of impartial reporting, and the continual re-invention of what we understand print journalism to be about in a digital age. As sports, with all their cultural, political and economic implications, continue to occupy a very public space in our contemporary culture, those whose job it is to help make sense of its narratives are overdue a re-assessment of their position within modern journalism.