Thursday, 19 October 2017

Sports Journalism: Ethical Vacuum or Ethical Minefield?

Sports journalism and ethics - strange bedfellows, you say? Possibly. But it's important they get together and have a catch up from time to time.

Think about the exposure of cheat-on-wheels Lance Armstrong and his drug-fuelled haul of syringe-tainted Tour de France titles. Think about the fall of plutocrat-cum-football administrator Sepp Blatter. Think about the odour - often less than fragrant - that attaches itself to the Olympics movement and the organisation of other mega, dollar-drenched sports jamborees. Without decent, thoughtful, duty-driven sports journalists, these important stories and issues just wouldn't get covered in the way that the public deserves. And only the hubristic would suggest that the industry doesn't still fall short on occasion.

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The Institute of Communication Ethics’ annual conference - Sports Journalism: Ethical Vacuum or Ethical Minefield? - has been pulled together by myself and Dr Daragh Minogue from the University of St Mary’s, Twickenham. What's exciting is that the conference has a truly international flavour, with academics and sports journalists from Australia, Spain and the United Kingdom all delivering papers. The keynote address will be made by Andy Cairns, executive editor of Sky Sports News.

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Sports journalism - like any industry - has its ethical dilemmas and tensions, but these dilemmas and tensions often aren't properly acknowledged, either within the profession or outside of it. During the course of my own work, I have been confronted by a number of ethical issues, ranging from disagreements with editors around issues of sensationalism and issues of representation to potential complicity with sources.

As a sports journalist, I know that the road of sports journalism is paved with the occasional ethical trip-wire. But while news journalism and news journalists receive frequent ethical scrutiny, sports journalism is often overlooked. That's why I'm doing a PhD on it, and why - on October 27 - we're organising an event where sports journalists and academics from around the world will converge at the Frontline Club in London to talk about the industry's ethics. 

Debate in London will cover everything from clickbait and codes of practice to the issues of self-censorship and sports journalists’ relationships with their sources. 

So, what duties, if any, do sports journalists have? I think a distinction needs to be drawn between the ‘on-diary’ activities of sports journalists - such as attending matches and press conferences - and what might be termed ‘off-diary', issues-based sports journalism. The practitioners of both have their responsibilities, but I think sports journalism can too often be fixated on the on-diary at the expense of the deeper journalism provided through the latter. I term this “ball watching” - by literally focusing on where the literal ball is on the field, journalists can metaphorically “take their eye off the ball” in terms of monitoring the deeper issues affecting the sport they are covering. It is the off-diary activities that provide the stories that have the most powerful effect on society. For a couple of examples in the UK, consider David Walsh's pursuit of Lance Armstrong, and Andrew Jennings' exposure of corruption at FIFA.

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As sport becomes more powerful, both in terms of economic power and cultural dominance, it is essential that sports journalists perform a watchdog function that holds the powerful institutions and people involved in sport to account. There is certainly no excuse for sports journalists to see themselves - or to be seen by others - as “fans with typewriters”, which is the old cliche about sports writers. The gathering in London next week will hopefully go some way to abolishing this caricature.