The day before the Georgia game, ironically, I delivered the GameDay lecture for the Auburn Office of Communications and Marketing. My topic was “This Is Loyalty,” and I presented some research on fan behavior, particularly in rivalries.
After the game, I related some of the content — particularly the concepts of BIRGing and CORFing — on Twitter. The retweets and replies showed interest, perhaps because they sound like gross things that would happen at post-game keg parties.
So after getting a grad student through a tight and chaotic thesis deadline (mission accomplished), I could turn my attention to some of the more fun aspects of academic research on fan loyalty.
We’ll blitz through the basics of social identity theory (finding groups that share our interests give our life balance, blah blah blah) and in-group/out-group conflicts (Robbers Cave experiment, yadda yadda yadda), to get to the more current stuff — disposition theory.
Giving credit where credit is due — and defying the cheap-click rivalry attitude of “professional” journalists — I would point out that two researchers from Alabama, Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, have done some of the best work on this. Type them into a Google Scholar search and party hearty.
But before they did the bulk of their research (including a 20-year trend study of the Iron Bowl rivalry), Robert Cialdini of Arizona State came up with the concepts of BIRGing and CORFing. BIRGing means “Basking In Reflected Glory” and CORFing means “Cutting Off Reflected Failure.”
First, the B word. This obviously refers to the way in which fans share a certain joy in their team’s victory, even though they might not have directly participated in it. I know, I know, the coach always says that the crowd helps, but we’re talking about throwing something down besides nachos.
It goes beyond wearing team apparel to the office on Monday (as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford demonstrates in the photo above) or talking about the game around the water cooler. The winning team’s fans also report an enhanced self-image and more confidence in making decisions. This is serious stuff! And when your rival team loses, it increases the BIRG.
CORFing is not the opposite, because fans deal with losses in a different but not opposite way. Rather than hide from it, they blame it on external factors: “The refs were not going to reverse their call even though Murray did not cross the goal line,” or “Robinson was holding on that last pass.” (Yes, the end of the Georgia game produced quite the CORF-fest on both sides at some point.)
That is because losses often do not diminish a fan’s loyalty to the team, but often strengthens their resolve. Yes, research does show that fans often show less immediate outward support. But we don’t abandon our in-groups quite that easily — even when the rival team wins and our team loses. They provide us too much social identity to be dumped that easily.
So after the trash talking and the blog commenting and the flag waving, I hope you BIRG to your heart’s content this weekend. Wear the sweatshirt on Monday. Talk about the game. Feel better about yourself and your decisions.
Unless you cheer for my rival.
Then, as one of the attendees at the aforementioned lecture said, “They can go CORF themselves.”
Nothing like statistically significant smack talk.
The Shelby County judge who issued an order banning a blogger from writing about a former governor’s son has accepted a friend of the court brief from the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the ACLU’s legal director for Alabama.
The ACLU submitted the brief Thursday on behalf of blogger Roger Shuler, who was jailed after violating the order by Judge Claud Neilson.
Neilson gave Riley and his attorneys a week to respond to the ACLU’s brief, said Randall Marshall of the ACLU. He cautioned that the judge gave no indication that he would rule further on his order at that time.
Marshall said the ACLU had submitted the brief to address two objections to the judge’s ruling: the order’s violation of Shuler’s First Amendment rights and the sealing of all records related to the case.
The ACLU has no interest in the underlying libel-related issues in the case, Marshall added. That includes whether the information reported by Shuler is true or false, and whether Riley is a public figure under libel law.
According to Marshall, the ruling to seal the records is just as much of a First Amendment issue as Neilson’s order barring Shuler from writing about Bob Riley Jr., son of the former Alabama governor.
"The sealed records violate the public’s right to access," he said. Sealing all records prevents news organizations from reporting on the case.
As Marshall told Kyle Whitmire of al.com, “There is a secret docket. That is not common in American courts.” While judges might seal records in cases related to children, this almost never happens in a case like the one involving Shuler, he said.
For background on what caused Riley’s attorneys to seek such an injunction from Neilson against Shuler, check out this link to an earlier article on al.com.
The news media of Alabama — particularly the Alabama Media Group/al.com — shamed itself by not defending the First Amendment against its assault by a Shelby County judge.
Granted, the case is as bizarre as the behavior of the blogger involved. But First Amendment cases are a matter of principle, regardless of the individual whose rights are attacked. It is not up to the courts — nor the news media — to determine who deserves First Amendment protection. Freedom of the press is a right of the people, not the news media.
When acting Shelby County Circuit Judge Claud Neilson issued an injunction preventing Legal Schnauzer blogger Roger Shuler from writing about an alleged affair between a former governor’s son and a Republican lobbyist, that was unconstitutional and the state’s news media should have responded quickly.
The injunction was issued before Oct. 3, when Shuler said he was served with the order, and he was arrested on Wednesday, Oct. 23, for violating it. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote about it on Friday, Oct. 25.
But where were the “leading” news sites of Alabama when all this was going on? Absent and silent. The RCFP (a respected media rights watchdog group) reported it, and other bloggers expressed outrage, but a Google News search for four days after the RCFP report turned up nothing else.
Finally, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, the Alabama Media Group posted a story about the case. It was well reported and included the constitutional controversy, but that was as far as it went. No editorial opposition or further comment. AMG, which includes three of the biggest and most distinguished newspapers in the state — the Birmingham News, Mobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — has allowed this story to die along with Shuler’s First Amendment rights.
(Note: Daily visits to the al.com search page for “Shuler” produced nothing until the Oct. 29 article. A more recent search referred to an article under “Clay, AL community news” on Oct. 28, and one under “Pelham local impact” on Oct. 25. However, both articles share the heading used by the Oct. 29 article, and a link to those pages does not show an article on the day in question, so I am taking that for a glitch.)
Other state newspapers do not fare well, either. Neither the Montgomery Advertiser nor the Tuscaloosa News have reported or commented on this. Even the Shelby County Reporter, a lively community newspaper that covers Neilson’s court, did not post an article until Oct. 29.
This silence by the state’s newspapers is deplorable and sets a poor example for the next generation of journalists. The political motivations of Judge Neilson’s actions — granting an unconstitutional prior restraint to Bob Riley Jr., the former governor’s son — are apparent.
In a state like Alabama, where political dirty tricks and insider networks poison state politics, it’s even more scary. When shady state political leaders see something like this happening, with no legal or media response, you wonder if they consider this another trick to add to the bag in dealing with critics and opponents.
People argue that Shuler’s actions in flaunting a judge’s order deserve arrest and imprisonment, but that misses the point. The restraining order that created this circus should not have been issued, period.
The traditional recourse for someone like Riley Jr. is to sue Shuler for libel. If Shuler is the journalistic disaster he claims, Riley can sue him and add financial bankruptcy to the ethical bankruptcy he alleges concerning Shuler.
That is the correct remedy, not issuing restraining orders before things are written. Such judicial overreach creates a “chilling effect” on public debate that certainly is convenient for state politicians, but defies decades of Supreme Court precedent. You blew it, Judge Neilson.
And until the state’s newspapers step forward and do their part to defend the First Amendment that protects their right to publish, they are just as complicit by their silence.
In an Internet age, where the speed of news transmission and the breadth of news contributors have both exploded, all journalists must hold on to such enduring foundational treasures against all threats. It is our duty.
It seems that as soon as the first part of Sports Illustrated’s series on the Oklahoma State football program was released, the criticism began.
And quickly following the criticism were the SI defenders. In defending SI, they assured everyone that the articles were well-vetted and legally in the clear.
In today’s media climate, the SI approach to defending its series, much like the series itself, reflects a dated approach.
As many have pointed out, the article itself is fast food — a tired menu served repeatedly. The “gotcha” articles on NCAA violations have been criticized for ignoring the larger systemic problems while distracting everyone’s attention with hard-to-prove allegations.
SI can make much of its legal vetting and discussions. But I wonder if, early in the planning process, anyone at the decision-making level sighed and said, “Do we really have to do another of these? Do they perform a public service in 2013?”
As such, the articles seem to be causing more of a yawn than SI could have anticipated. Given the struggles facing SI and other magazines, it might not have been the best strategy.
But just as outmoded is SI’s “it’s legal!” strategy. Maybe back in the day of fewer media outlets, that might have worked. Considering the multiple outlets fans can choose from today, SI might be again miscalculating.
Perhaps Thayer Evans once again actually did keep just to this side of legal and nonactionable behavior. Good for him.
But Evans’ approach to ethics has been clear from his actions in the past. There, it is obvious that his goal is professional success, and anyone involved — sources or subjects — is a means to that end. And that approach might cost SI more readers than the results would generate.
From his embellished reporting of Texas recruit Jamarkus McFarland to his encouragement of the breaking of federal privacy law in his reporting of Cam Newton at Florida (saved only by Florida’s lack of interest in prosecuting the case) to the cultural bigotry that he and Pete Thamel showed in their reporting on Tyrann Mathieu, Evans has portrayed few of the tenets of ethical journalism.
And in this situation, Evans has practiced his specialty of carpet-bomb interviews. He approaches a slew of sources with no warning, neglects to say he is conducting an interview (though I always warn anyone that when you are talking to a journalist, you are being interviewed), and slaps the results together with zero concern for the interview subject.
(Disclosure: I am a faculty member at Auburn University. I will claim my concern is based on ethics, not content. But that is for the reader to judge.)
Today, when a writer’s past is transparent, regardless of his own ethics, Evans’ record is there to judge. So that when sources claim that he deceived, or did not fully disclose, or misquoted, readers have a lot of evidence at their disposal.
For some reason, Thayer Evans is a sports journalism Lane Kiffin, falling upward after consistent ethical fumbles. Apparently SI likes him because he “gets the story;” I almost expect his SI editors to be wearing green eyeshades in smoke-filled rooms. A former SI staffer had his own theories as to why Evans and Pete Thamel were hired, along with concerns.
And maybe they paired him with George Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize winner, to add a respectable veneer to his reporting tactics. Like expecting a clean dog to scare the fleas off its mangy companion.
The Oklahoma State series might not result in any successful lawsuits. But the journalism being practiced and endorsed — in both its ethics and its perspective — belongs to another age. Its statute of limitations has long run out.
To my students and other journalism students, a reminder: The subjects you interview and write about are human beings, not objects.
And you are a human being as well. Act like one.
When ESPN’s Joe Schad reported on the Johnny Manziel autograph allegations Tuesday, those who follow me on Twitter (shameless plug — johncarvalhoau), you saw me tweeting a lot of questions.
These questions reflect the kind of issues we talk about in journalism as it relates to such issues as source credibility and anonymous sources. So here, with more than 140 characters, are some of these issues.
First, a complaint about reality. I recognize that ESPN is in a rush to stay ahead on this story. I am not suggesting that they gaze at their navels for days, meditating on principle while the story passes them by. But some additional steps would enhance their credibility and maybe help the reader understand the story better and trust the reporting more.
Now, on to the problems:
Problem #1: Source credibility. I do not know much about autograph brokers, but they don’t seem to rate high on the respect scale. They seem to prey on the naivete of both athletes and sports fans.
Journalists deal with this all the time. Perhaps a paragraph of discussion in the article, along with a link to a sidebar on these brokers, would enlighten the audience as to ESPN’s awareness of whom they are dealing with.
Source credibility was a big issue in an important libel case, Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967). You’ll have to do your own Google search for the case details; it does involve allegations of cheating against Bear Bryant, to whet your appetite. One thing that worked against the Saturday Evening Post was that the main source for the article had served jail time for fraud.
Problem #2: Granting anonymity. Perhaps no ethical decision is abused more than this. Journalists recognize that granting anonymity immediately causes the audience to doubt the source, so we try to make sure the source has a good reason for requesting anonymity.
This source would claim a valid reason for requesting anonymity. He (Schad identifies him as a male) could lose business if he is identified as the source for the video. But when a source in a shady business (see Problem #1) seeks protection, the cringe factor increases. Granting anonymity to the wrong source can make the reporter look like a dupe.
The responsible thing to do is, within the article, include a paragraph or two explaining the decision and explaining how the source fits in to the story and the situation. In other stories (granted, involving more credible sources), you frequently see a sentence like, “The sources requested to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to release information on the case.”
Another responsible action, which I would wager Schad did, would be to identify the anonymous source to a superior. This is SOP for any journalist. Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee knew the identity of “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men. Which relates to the next problem.
Problem #3: Selling videos. While the cell phone video has what would be explosive content, if true, ESPN was correct in not paying the autograph broker for it. While some tabloid publications/websites might, most traditional media outlets do not pay for interviews or documents.
In essence, the autograph broker was damaging his own credibility here. Schad’s story does not specifically say that the revelation of the video’s existence set off some kind of bidding war, though I can imagine the broker got at least a few offers. In offering it for sale, he seems to be out for personal gain more than anything.
What is confusing, however, is who actually saw the cellphone video. Did Schad alone see it? Or did someone else see it? The story is unclear here, because it uses the terms “Schad” and “ESPN” interchangeably. (In these situations, I usually write a comment in the margin that says something like, “Networks don’t view videos; people do,” and have my student clarify.)
As with the anonymous source, it would be safest for two people — Schad and someone else, preferably a peer or superior — to view the video. That not only increases the story’s credibility, but demonstrates ESPN’s commitment to cover its bases.
I’m not claiming that these are situations where ESPN and Schad failed. I am saying that these are potential pitfalls that should be addressed in the presentation of such reports.
It’s one reason investigative reporting is such an arduous and costly enterprise. In the classroom, we teach our students not simply to take such situations and run with them, but to evaluate and appraise and ask and decide, and then to communicate those decisions.
(Side note: Critics always claim that college students should not major in journalism. This is an example of why it is a good reason to do so. Better to cover this stuff in the classroom, before it runs you over in a job-related situaton)
I doubt ESPN reps or Joe Schad will answer these questions because of what I write here. Let’s hope they answer these questions in their articles because it represents solid, responsible investigative journalism.
The Auburn Athletic Department’s hiring of former Birmingham News sportswriter Charles Goldberg and former Huntsville Times/AuburnUndercover writer Phillip Marshall was a surprise.
The trend, however, is nothing new. Many major college athletic departments are doing the same thing. Having relied on newspapers and Web sites in the past, they are taking their messages straight to their publics.
That adds a lot of new wrinkles at every point of the relationship between fans, athletic programs and media. The term “media” might be derived from the Latin for “between,” but the World Wide Web and social media are empowering organizations to shoulder the traditional media out of the way and speak directly to audiences effectively.
For the Auburn Athletic Department, that means using Facebook and Twitter to direct fans to its website, AuburnTigers.com. Jack Smith, senior associate athletic director for communications, oversees the project.
Smith said about 20 FBS-level schools have hired popular, experienced beat writers for that purpose, following the lead of NFL teams. He points to the University of Florida, which hired Chris Harry, who covered the Gators for 13 years with the Orlando Sentinel, to be senior staff writer for GatorZone.com.
And the University of Oregon just announced the hiring of Rob Moseley, who covered Ducks football for the Eugene Register-Guard for the past six years, as editor-in-chief of goducks.com.
The goal, Smith said, is to engage the Auburn community — fans, alumni, students and donors — on all platforms. That includes the above strategies and a new project, Tiger Roar Digital, an online version of the quarterly magazine sent to Tigers Unlimited donors. The online magazine will launch in mid-August, featuring articles by Goldberg and Marshall, photos by Todd Van Emst, and embedded videos, Smith said.
It’s a recent project, but it has been in the works for a while. Marshall, long-time Auburn beat writer for the Huntsville Times (1994-2008) and AuburnUndercover.com (2008-2013), said Smith originally approached him last summer, long before the Selena Roberts article on Mike McNeil and the ESPN report on Dakota Mosley, in case you were wondering.
Marshall, however, declined the opportunity. Earlier this year, the Athletic Department hired Goldberg. When they approached Marshall again in June, he was ready for the change.
"The move to 24/7 was really good," he said, referring to the parent company of the AuburnUndercover site. The site had grown in his time there, fueled by the 2010 national championship and two coaching transitions.
Two aspects of the job, however, grew difficult. The first was administration of message boards and answering fan questions. ”For a long time I didn’t mind it, but it was wearing on me at the time,” he said.
The second was the increased emphasis on recruiting. Fan sites like AuburnUndercover draw and keep their subscribers with aggressive recruiting news, and while Bryan Matthews does excellent work for AuburnUndercover, Marshall said he won’t mind leaving that behind.
Because it is affiliated with the Athletic Department, AuburnTigers.com is not allowed to report on the recruiting of specific athletes. So at least from that perspective, the other sports media retain at least one advantage, besides editorial independence.
The audience is there. Auburn’s official Facebook page has more than 256,000 likes. Marshall has almost 10,000 Twitter followers (though he admits to mainly linking and retweeting). Goldberg — also a retweeter and linker — has 18,000 followers and the Auburn football has about 64,000. Even counting for overlap, that is a lot of potential eyes for Marshall’s and Goldberg’s articles.
Fans familiar with Goldberg and Marshall know what to expect. They channel Grantland Rice more than Deadspin, and while they are reliable information sources — an Auburn football news tip, good or bad, was not considered solid until one of them confirmed it — they are well-suited to the articles intended for the site.
Marshall said the most attractive part of the job is “telling stories of Auburn athletes and coaches. I like doing those kind of in-depth profile stories.”
Smith said that Goldberg and Marshall are expected to write objective stories. At the same time, Smith, avoiding references to current sports, said, “If we had a cricket team, and it were to get destroyed in a game, and the coach says, ‘That’s as bad as my team has played all year,’ they are going to quote the coach. At the same time, they are not going to write a column that the cricket coach should be fired.”
Marshall concurred with Smith’s example. ”I’m not going to write a column that’s saying someone ought to be fired,” he said, “but the truth of the matter is, I’ve never done that anyway.”
So where does that leave the traditional media folks and relatively newer fan sites? Piece of cake. The AuburnTigers.com strategy might take some attention and media time from the audience, but as we’re finding, the saturation point is a constant speck on the horizon. This ain’t the 1970s, when the market was driven by scarcity.
The main advantage — and it’s neither small nor minor — for Goldberg and Marshall is access. The Athletic Department can have them break news on official announcements, embargoing the external news sources. That would also enhance the AuburnTigers.com site, making it seem more useful as a news source.
That’s a tough head start for their colleagues to overcome. Still, the Jay Tates and Brandon Marcellos will have plenty of opportunities to provide the kind of information fans won’t find on the AuburnTigers.com site, and they are definitely up to the challenge.
Sports fans are information-hungry and information-savvy — whether the information comes from the media or from the organization itself. They know what kind of info they like and they know where to get it and how to find new sources. In that sense, there is still plenty of attention to go around.
We can be grateful that Paul Finebaum did not announce his move to SEC with a LeBron James-style “The Decision” hourlong broadcast. But his announcement that he is taking his talents to Charlotte was surprising mainly because it revealed the strength of his brand.
ESPN announced that Finebaum will host a daily radio call-in show on its radio network and that in August 2014, when the SEC Network launches, it will include a TV version of Finebaum’s radio program.
With so many companies wanting Finebaum’s talents — remember, it was a Cox Media Group offer in 2011 that launched the speculation about his future once his contract with Cumulus ended in January 2013 — he had some great offers to choose from.
Now that he has chosen ESPN, speculation is focusing on what the format of his program will be like? He has stated that he still wants it to be caller-driven, but with those callers? ESPN has stated that the network still wants “Paul to be Paul,” but whom will Paul-as-Paul be talking to?
The move to Charlotte makes sense on several levels. The ESPNU studios have been located there since it launched in March 2005, and the ESPN SEC Network will be based there as well.
But the move from Birmingham has prompted some to wonder whether that signals ESPN’s desire for the show to change. From a programming perspective, Finebaum could have produced his show anywhere. It’s the same rationale that allows the SEC Network to be located in a non-SEC state.
In moving to ESPN and the SEC Network, Finebaum’s show will have to change, in good ways. It might still be caller-driven, but the callers will represent more than Alabama, Alabama, and Auburn fans. (I see what I did there!)
Finebaum might want his first five callers to be Robert, Legend, Tammy, Jim and I-Man, but he would be best off telling the last four, “Thanks for getting me here. Let’s keep this to once a week, tops.” And goodbye.
As ringmaster to that circus (Credit Andy Staples with that metaphor), Finebaum was accused of “stirring the pot” with such callers. Perhaps, but I always note that the pot should bear some responsibility as well.
While, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry might have been interesting to a program syndicated on 25 stations in 21 Alabama towns, it will not create sustained interest within a national radio program (though a lot of Alabama fans might argue otherwise).
I would imagine that the hope is to create the same level of, um, excitement with a nationwide network of similar callers. As the senior VP in charge of the SEC Network said, “We want Paul to be Paul.”
But it’s a principle of physics that expanded volume reduces the pressure and heat. We will have to see how that plays out on the radio.
For me, Finebaum was most interesting for the media personalities he would attract. His interviews with Bruce Feldman, Kirk Herbstreit and even Tim Brando provided lively content. But now, with ESPN paying the contract, we will have to see whether Feldman and Brando will be let in the door, or whether Finebaum will be limited to the same ESPN roster that is rotated around the Worldwide Leader’s programs.
If it devolves to Finebaum and another ESPN talking head switching chairs to talk on each other’s segments, it would be a poor substitute for the media personalities he featured before.
Coaches interviews? Meh. SEC Media Days will be a couple of weeks before Finebaum’s show debuts. But fans won’t miss much. The coach appearances were always an obligatory nod to Finebaum’s audience. But even a freshman writing a history paper would be hard-pressed to expand the actual content of those interviews into the assigned length.
Ex-coaches segments? It will be interesting to see whether ESPN allows Gene Stallings and Pat Dye to have their weekly segments. Neither provided much in the way of actual new information (and I found the drama Finebaum drew from his relationship with Dye to be fatiguing). Stallings impressed more with his elder statesmen persona.
I will venture one prediction: Those inane political debates will be gone, and won’t be missed. In his al.com interview, Finebaum said that he mainly missed the opportunity to comment on Alabama AD Mal Moore’s death and such news stories as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Oklahoma tornados.
But anyone who has listened to Finebaum knows that the Jason Collins coming-out story and Sergio Garcia’s “fried chicken” comments would have precipitated a couple of days of off-season debate, and those were always the low point of the Finebaum program before.
Even Finebaum himself would sound quickly tired of the calls that started, “I’m not a racist, but I do want to say… .” And if an article on the Helena church declining to host a Boy Scout troop after its decision to admit gay young man generated almost 3,000 comments on the al.com site, you can imagine what would happen on Finebaum’s Birmingham show.
Beyond that? You will have to tune in to find out. My listening might expand to beyond the 5 minutes it takes me to drive home from campus. It depends on how much Paul in Charlotte resembles Paul in Birmingham.
I recently had a dust-up with ESPN’s Darren Rovell about the reliability of Poptip poll results.
Poptip is a program that allows users to conduct quick surveys on Twitter, and then compiles the results.
No harm, nothing foul. But apparently some folks got into it with Rovell about references to a “margin of error” in his Poptip polls.
So being a professor and a math nerd, I thought I would convene a quick session on surveys, if for no other reason, to explain why some people (like me) get so agitated when Poptip polls claim a margin of error.
A margin of error is one measurement of how closely a sample’s opinions reflect the population as a whole. You might also see it called a “plus/minus.”
The issue here involves, not the size of the sample, but how it is drawn. As anyone who has studied statistics will tell you, the margin of error is relevant only when the sample is drawn from the population by some mathematical formula.
Poptip polls — like the quick polls on the front page of ESPN — create what are known as volunteer or convenience samples. They cannot reflect the population as a whole, because they are drawn from people who happen to be on the ESPN page, or see a Darren Rovell tweet, and vote.
They are fun, and they give people a chance to voice their opinions. But that is as far as it goes. The results reflect only the people who voted, not sports fans or voters as a whole. Even responses in the tens of thousands (“mass,” as Rovell described it to me) have no statistical meaning beyond those who vote.
When a pollster uses a random sampling method, he/she has mathematical tools available to predict how close the results are to the population as a whole. Not perfect. Not always right. But as Nate Silver demonstrates, carefully drawn data in skillful hands can yield rich information.
I’m not here to spoil anyone’s fun. If you want to do a PopTip poll, have at. It looks like fun. But don’t talk margin of error. That’s just putting lipstick on a statistical pig.
Is the AP’s annual list of Top 10 sports stories biased toward the NFL?
If you have asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have guessed that the list was biased toward New York — citing the ranking of the Giants’ Super Bowl win as the No. 8 story of 2012. The Miami Heat’s NBA championship was totally off this most recent list, despite what it meant both to LeBron James’ legacy and to the wider question of free agency.
When I tweeted that complaint, in reply to Awful Announcing’s posting of the list on its Twitter feed, one of AA’s followers, @randyjalisco, replied, “Or just NFL bias.”
That sent me looking through the previous Top 10 lists. And based on a limited sample, I can say — Mr. Jalisco might have a point.
Unfortunately, I could go back to only 2009 to get complete AP Top 10 sports stories lists. While the wire service has been releasing its Top 10 list of news stories for years, full lists are spotty before 2009.
The executive summary: Every year since 2005, the Super Bowl has been ranked higher than the World Series or the NBA Finals. Twice before then, the World Series ranked higher, but the trend is toward the NFL’s big event.
Even based on a four-year sample, the difference is obvious. Compare the three major pro league sports: NFL, MLB, NBA. In the past four years, the Super Bowl is ranked in the Top 10 all four years. The highest ranking was in 2010, when the Saints’ victory was the No. 2 story (understandable, given what the victory and team meant to post-Katrina New Orleans).
During those four years, the World Series winner made the Top 10 three times (all except this past year), but every year, the Series ranked lower than the Super Bowl.
The NBA Finals makes the Top 10 only once, in 2011, when the Dallas Mavericks beat the “Big Three.”
If you took an average rating, and assigned the sport No. 11 when it did not make the Top 10 to keep it from having more than a minimal effect, here are the average rankings for the past four years: Super Bowl, 4.75; MLB, 8; NBA, 10.
A glance back through the pre-2009 years (thanks to a couple of friends who work for AP and found the old features, though not any actual lists), can add some casual light to the stats above.
2008. The New York Giants’ victory over New England in the Super Bowl was No. 2, and the Celtics’ turnaround NBA championship was No. 5, of the five listed. Michael Phelps and the Olympics were the top story, of course. No World Series.
2007. Only the Top 5 stories were mentioned, and none of those involved major pro championships, though baseball was No. 1 (Bonds and steroids) and NFL was No. 5 (Belichick and video cheating plus Patriots’ start).
2006. The Steelers’ Super Bowl victory was No. 6, and the Tigers’ World Series win was No. 9. It was a good year for Tigers — the pro golfer’s six straight victories, even after the death of his father, was the top story — seems so long ago, doesn’t it?
2005. Baseball topped football, and every other sport, in this list, which includes only seven stories. The World Series win by the Chicago White Sox was voted the top story, with New England’s Super Bowl victory ranking No. 5 — the last time baseball topped football.
2004. Unfortunately, the only Top 10 list for the AP involved worldwide sports stories, so none of the three major pro sports leagues were mentioned. The top rated story, in fact, was Greece winning the 2004 European Championship in soccer. Now you know.
2003. The entire list is given. The Florida Marlins’ surprise World Series victory was No. 3, and the Tampa Bay Super Bowl win over Oakland (which recently made it back into the headlines after Tim Brown alleged that coach Bill Callahan threw the game) was No. 8. The Kobe Bryant sexual assault scandal was the top story.
Making the Top 10 for any event is tough. It takes into account important stories that do not directly deal with actual games: the Jerry Sandusky child molestation investigation was the No. 1 story the past two years. And the Summer Olympics will always intrude every four years, more often than the Winter Olympics.
But the trend is there. Maybe the Super Bowl being one game, rather than a multiple-game series, enhances its stature. Or maybe, as @randyjalisco said, the list has an NFL bias.
Considering that the game takes place almost 10 months before the list comes out, while the World Series finishes less than two months before, only heightens the event’s perceived impact.
So come late December, you can lay odds that, regardless of which Harbaugh wins, the NFL will have laid the PR groundwork so that this year’s Super Bowl will be rated one of the Top 10 sports stories of 2013.
As the sports world moves on (if that’s possible) from the Manti Te’o case, sports journalists still need to stop, take a breath, and reflect on what we have learned from this.
To be honest, journalists are poor practitioners of self-reflection. We tend to move on to the next story, promising to do better next time and looking for an article to paste over our previous mistakes. But we need to wrench the gut a little here.
Witness the eagerness to sweep everything under the rug based on Te’o’s interview with Jeremy Schaap. Whatever you feel about Te’o, however, does not relate how the sports media handled the story. Or, to paraphrase Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Much of the debate has centered on the reporting by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated and Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN, the highest-profile of the many who reported this story. Both admitted to noticing the red flags in September, when Te’o spoke of his “girlfriend’s” death and how it affected his play in the Irish’s big win against Michigan State.
So now, the debate is, to what extent should Thamel, Wojciechowski and others have double-checked on this. Thamel pleaded a tight deadline in his defense. Would SI have delayed the article for a few unconfirmed facts? Based on this experience, the answer would be different now. But back then? We don’t know, because Thamel apparently did not ask.
One troubling aspect of all this is the extent to which everyone, Thamel and Wojciechowski included, seems to be engaging in shoulder-shrugging more than serious reflection.
For example, Peter King of SI tweeted, “And for those crucifying @SIPeteThamel, crucify me too. He’s tremendous. I back him unequivocally.”
King can be excused for rushing to support a colleague, which is understandable, but his statement represents a rhetorical “straw man” that distracts from the real issue. No one is out to crucify Pete Thamel. His article and reporting, like the others is another matter.
In journalism, we separate the product from the writer once it is written. We put our heart and soul into what we write, then step back and let it be cut to pieces by editors, to improve it. Let’s follow the same principle here.
Good reporting is good reporting because it informs and engages the reader with facts, many of which were not previously known. It’s not good reporting because a good reporter writes it — although good reporters earn their reputation through their work.
The converse is true. Pete Thamel and Gene Wojciechowski are not bad reporters. But this was bad reporting.
So where do we go from here? So many supporters seem to be throwing up their hands, as if such situations are inevitable. ”What are we supposed to do?” they ask. ”Demand to see the body?”
No, but neither are we supposed to give up and accept that factual errors are inevitable. David Griner, writing for the Poynter Institute, uses the response from “This American Life” and Ira Glass, when a story about injuries and abuse at an Apple factory in Africa turned out to be false.
What we have seen instead falls far short, and we need to strive to be better than that. Journalists are supposed to skeptical, not cynical. We are supposed to have our B.S. meter fully engaged, regardless of the source.
And that is one factor here: The desire of all involved to believe the best about Te’o. That was one of the most scathing indictments of Thamel, by Josh Levin of Slate. Many more in the media are guilty of wanting to believe the best about Te’o, so that they unfairly dial down their B.S. meter. The word for that is “bias.” Would they have been so trusting toward an SEC football player?
My hope as we move on from this is that all sports journalists, from Sports Illustrated and ESPN down to the local weekly, will learn from this. If a fact cannot be confirmed, stop and confirm. As this story demonstrates (and it is not a once-in-a-lifetime disaster), it’s worth it.
Imagine if Thamel or Wojciechowski had asked their superiors for a delay to double-check a couple of red flags. Imagine the article that would have resulted — a well-intentioned but naive college football player hoaxed by a fake girlfriend, culminating with her supposed death before a big game. Imagine the heartache and missteps this would have saved Teo and his family.
What if one journalist had done his or her homework?
Talk about a hero.