Sports journalism has become an adult fairy-tale
14.07.2014By Lars Andersson
Real Madrid loses 4-3 to FC Barcelona. Cristiano Ronaldo is angry and vents his frustrations to the press.
This is modern sports journalism in a nutshell.
A match report and a one-source story with a sports celebrity.
According to the International Sports Press Survey 2011, 78 percent of all sports journalism is essentially about matches, athletes and coaches; 2.7 percent covers sports politics and 3.1 per cent focuses on economic aspects of sports.
This imbalance occurs in a world in which billions of dollars are being shovelled into events and in which leagues capture the interest of billions of people worldwide – and it is a world which is plagued by corruption, abuse of power, lack of democratic transparency, doping and a range of other blights on and beneath its surface that would set off warning signals in any democratic society.
“Sport and journalism have been Siamese twins ever since the birth of sport. Sport became a strong symbol for new nation-states due to its power to fascinate – and journalism reflected this,” Jens Sejer Andersen, the international director of Play the Game, explains.
This is what the few journalists who dare to delve behind the sporting world’s glossy facade, like Jens Weinreich, Laura Robinson and James M. Dorsey, have continually experienced.
“Journalism in sport is dominated by TV presenters, fans and people who are only interested in counting corners and fouls and passes in football. Investigative journalism does not have a strong tradition in this field. I think this changed a little bit in 1992 when Andrew Jennings’ first book, ‘The Lords of the Rings’, was published. A growing number of journalists who have taken this path have tried to do their job. I was encouraged by this book, too. But the number of investigative journalists working in the business and sport political field is much, much, much too few,” say Weinreich, who has worked extensively with sports policy in international organisations for decades.
Journalists are not trained in investigative journalism, either:
“Most sport journalists are not investigative journalists. Many are also too close to their sources and the subjects they cover. To be fair, investigative journalism also has suffered in general as a result of the crisis in the media, because of the economic downturn as well as difficulty in adjusting to technological change,” says James M. Dorsey, who has primarily focused on political angles in Asian and Middle Eastern football.
Laura Robinson, who like Weinreich and Dorsey, has been writing about sport’s darker sides for years, compares most sports stories with adult fairytales.
“There is always a winner and that person is, in the mainstream press, male, except when the Olympics are on. This re-enforces a sort of ‘white knight’, ‘good/bad’ view of the world that makes a huge amount of people feel that things are as they should be. I believe that these highly moralistic fairytale stories where athletes compete to see who is best, who will triumph – really who is the ‘better’ man – are obviously necessary for many people or they wouldn’t be worth so much.”
They have a lot to hide
International sports organisations live off sport’s “power to fascinate” – organisations that, since the 1980s, have managed a business worth millions, often without any public or democratic control:
“Sport organisations don’t want a sociological interpretation of anything. They want things very simple – nationalistic, commercial, taking the moral high ground, as if sport has almost by definition a moral goodness about it. The athletes – who mainly just love their sports, love to compete and want to do their best – are exploited by organisations that use their love and passion and sell them commercially,” Robinson says, pointing out that it is not the sports journalists who are rocking the boat.
“I think many people always wanted to ‘make the team’ as children and never really did. Sports journalists finally make it into the charmed circle. Now they are in and they won’t rock the boat, even if they understand that their role is supposed to be exactly that – rock the boat, you are a journalist after all. But they know, if you rock the boat you won’t be invited back in. It is much easier just to report the usual. They could use a software package and just fill in different names, different sports, different injuries and teams,” she concludes.
At the same time Robinson warns against an increased blurring of media and sporting interests, which in North America is evident in, for instance, television sports channels that are controlled by club owners and subsequently reduce the journalists to PR officers.
Or, as Jens Sejer Andersen puts it:
“The essence of sport’s inability to accept criticism is that it has the monopoly. On the one hand we want sport to be a part of civil society – associations with complete freedom that are independent from the state. But on the other hand is the dilemma that sport has become a business. Freedom of association becomes a Trojan horse for dubious businesspeople who create alliances and make money to the detriment of society.”
It is exactly for this reason that there is a need for investigative journalism in the sports world:
“I am always saying: Journalists have a duty; they must not promote sporting events and they must not run propaganda campaigns for sport organisations and politicians. The entertainment aspect of journalism is only one aspect – a minor aspect in terms of the bigger task of journalism: Find out what people want to hide, investigate, create a public, report what is really going on,” Weinreich stresses.
And the sports organisations?
“They are afraid, as all non-transparent organisations are. Most of them have a lot to hide…”
Lars Andersson is co-editor of the Danish sports political magazine Sport Executive, www.sportexecutive.dk. This article is a shortened and adapted version of a longer story written for playthegame.org.
Read the first article, ‘The truth cannot be concealed’.