Fired for Applauding: The Warped Ethics of Sports Reporters

I missed this story, because I regard auto racing as interesting as beetle mating, but it is an important one.

"Yeah, I report on it, but I really don't give a damn."

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 last month, and the unexpected victory of the youngest Daytona champion ever provoked audible glee in the press box. One of the reporters on the scene, Sports Illustrated freelancer Tom Bowles, explained on Twitter and his blog why his applauding for a sporting result, considered a cardinal sin in the sportswriting profession, was not a sin after all.

He was fired. Most of his colleagues agree with SI’s decision. I, on the other hand, agree with Bowles. He was not fired for being biased, but for daring to be honest about his biases, and to display them in public. He was, in short, fired for revealing in himself what is undoubtedly true of every other sports reporter: he follows the sport, and has an interest in the results. He would be a lousy reporter if he didn’t. He did nothing unethical. He was fired, in fact, for being ethical.

Bowles recently wrote on his blog:

“.. You see, no matter how much of a Kodak moment happens around you, many insist “sacred rule #1” of being a sportswriter is Don’t Cheer in the Press Box. Even smiling in public—revealing emotion—stamps you with the Scarlet Letter of bias for eternity. It’s a fatal flaw, the old story goes, corrupting the impartial analysis, factual and critical thinking skills that make media members “larger than life” compared to the fans that read us. Defending my position on Twitter was enough to break media rule #2, “Apologize Profusely When Important People Think You Have Sinned.” And suddenly, three days later, those defenses led to the perfect “three strikes and you’re out of a job” conclusion.

Except my position hasn’t changed. I took those ethics courses in journalism just like everyone else; I understand the importance of impartiality in reporting. But last time I checked, where you’re supposed to be judged is whether that actually shows up on paper….Bayne’s victory was a ray of hope for a sport beaten down the last five years, a 30 percent ratings decline for this race alone from ’05-‘10 spurring more criticism and negative storylines than the careers of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan combined. I was far from the only reporter who clapped that day; the sad part is I’m the only one bold enough to admit it in the face of peers overly focused on the values of reporting rather than the act itself…So the first step to a solution is recognizing the clapping problem, which is that we’re all inherently biased: wired to judge, love, hate, and experience every emotion in between, parts of the brain we can’t shut off like a water fountain. The key, then, to me is to know how to turn that off in your writing, a story focused on getting the facts right first before transitioning into actual analysis. Fact: I clapped, and then shook Trevor Bayne’s hand on the way out along with many assembled media in attendance.”

Like journalists who have been fired or suspended for contributing to a political candidate’s campaign or appearing in a private capacity at a political rally, a sportswriter who reveals that he or she isn’t blandly objective and applauds at a sporting result should be applauded in turn by the public. Thank you—now we have more information upon which to assess your reporting. For example, I didn’t know Walter Cronkite was a rabid liberal Democrat until after he retired. Would this knowledge have helped the nation put his much-lauded, and unprofessional, decree that the Viet Nam War was a lost cause in perspective? Of course it would have. Instead, the American public was led to believe that the wise, unbiased, unpolitical, neutral Uncle Walter had looked at all sides of the issue and decided that the U.S. was the bad guy in Southeast Asia.

The rule against journalists flying their political and ideological colors is deceitful in the news; it is deceitful and silly in sports reporting. When the Boston Red Sox finally won a World Series in 2004, Peter Gammons, a life-long Red Sox fan who was the team’s Homer for much of his earlier career, was interviewing celebrating Sox players and desperately trying to keep a big fat grin off his face. Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kaplar made Gammons blush when he said on the air, “Come on, Peter, lighten up; everyone knows you’re a Sox fan!” Well, everyone in Boston maybe, and those ESPN listeners who detected a Boston slant in Gammons’ reporting. But Kaplar was right: why hide the truth? Would anyone who didn’t care who won sports contests ever become a sportswriter? Would anyone want to read the reporting of such an uninvolved observer?

There are two issues in the ethical treatment of bias, and whether a professional has any isn’t one of them. As Bowles says, everyone is biased. The two issues are whether the bias has been disclosed, and whether the professional can be objective and fair despite them. Being able to manage and disregard biases is the mark of a professional in all fields, whether it is law, journalism, sports reporting or holding elected office. Letting us know what biases a professional has to overcome is critical information in assessing how well he does his job.

A profession or an organization that punishes someone for revealing the truth isn’t showing its integrity. It is showing its insecurity.


10 thoughts on “Fired for Applauding: The Warped Ethics of Sports Reporters

  1. Good article, Jack. As I’ve often said, I don’t hold a reporter’s biases against him, AS LONG as he’s up front about them. If he’s honest enough to be so, then he’s more liable to be honest in his professional reporting in spite of personal bias. It’s a matter of innate integrity. This holds in all facets of coverage. BTW; did anyone hold it against the late Harry Carey for being an overt Chicago fan?

  2. How is clapping for a win in NASCAR even show that you are biased? A driver wins his first Daytona and you don’t clap? That’s just rude. Truth be told, the average fan doesn’t have the mentality of “I will only clap if [Driver X] wins”. Their mentality is “I won’t clap if [Driver Y] wins”. Look at the stands after a win. (Almost) Everyone is clapping. There are over 40 drivers in the field. People clap for the winner. It is rude not to. This isn’t baseball.

    • Michael, I was going to mention baseball broadcasters, but decided iy was far-afield. I actually find naked rooting in the broadcast booth annoying…Harry drove me nuts. So does Jon Sterling. But I assume them to be biased…that’s OK, as long as it doesn’t interfere with letting me know what’s happening fairly. The Red Sox play playbyplay guy, Joe Castiglione, is remarkably even handed, but I can tell if the Red Sox are winning or losing when I tune in just by the sound of his voice.

      • By “this isn’t baseball”, I meant that there are only sides playing in a baseball game. If you are rooting for 1, it sort of means you are not rooting for the other team. In NASCAR, there can be over 40 drivers out there. If you applaud the driver who wins, it is unlikely that he is the only driver you are rooting for and you are against all the other drivers. You are just applauding the accomplishment of the driver who won, no disrespect to anyone else. When you applaud a significant career milestone like the driver’s first Daytona 500 win, it is especially so.

  3. Sports reporters cannot represent a media outlet on a particular beat if they display a rooting interest. If they can’t keep emotional attachment behind when viewing a sporting event they’re covering, how could readers expect them to leave it behind in their reporting? How could they possibly establish a meaningful relationship with “Second Place Driver” after he hears the reporter cheered the victory of “First Place Driver?” How could the public not second-guess every report of that reporter? The Cronkite example is the absolute reason: If he objectively reports the facts so that you don’t indicate a bias, you trust his reporting. If he doesn’t, you don’t. After cheering in the press box, who could trust this reporter to objectively present the facts on this sport — or perhaps any other?

    • If he has a bias, and they all do, then there is nothing unethical or wrong about displaying it. Hiding a bias doesn’t fix it; nor does pretending it doesn’t exist. A sportswriter naturally reacts to exciting results in hsi or her sport—I see no bias here at all. But even if there is a bias, it is strange indeed to punish the writer who reveals it, while rewarding the writer who silently slants his coverage while pretending to be “neutral.”

      • I can’t agree with the central premise — that everyone who covers news has a bias in what they cover. It’s absolutely possible to cover any number of events, sporting and political, in which the writer has no rooting interest or can equally see the benefit of any side winning. It’s as true in a car race as a political race. It’s easy for any journalist to see the pluses/minuses of Perry winning the GOP nomination as Romney or any of the others. But to display a preference impugns your ability to report and your credibility when you do.

        • Explain how impugning your ability to report when you have a bias is undesirable, if the lack of impugning is based on deliberate misinformation. Or how hiding that bias preserves your legitimate credibility. This makes no sense, Gary.

          • There’s simply no bias involved if you remain objective. To have a preference in the outcome of a news event threatens your credibility. If you display a bias, it’s lost, not just with readers/viewers. Even if your viewers/readers appreciate the “honesty” in revealing a preference, they certainly won’t believe you’ve got good information from the Auburn coach if you’re interviewing him in an Alabama jersey. The best position for sports writers, and it’s not a difficult or uncommon, is to have no rooting interest at all. And if you do have one, make sure it isn’t reflected in your work, publicly or privately.

            • The first sentence is a tautology. By definition, a bias means you are not innately objective—that doesn’t preclude BEING objective. You next to last sentence is fantasy. All sportswriters have rooting interests; the good ones are able to prevent them from affecting their reporting. You last sentence is true.

              If someone has a rooting interest, it is more ethical to reveal it than to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Their position is no different than what I do. Objectivity is crucial—I spend more time trying to adjust for biases than I do writing an essay sometimes. But if you think, you have biases, and it is unethical to pose otherwise.

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