Friday, March 2, 2007

Push for more than 'bats & balls' coverage

An adviser in Connecticut brings up a legitimate concern about sports reporting. More to the point, he wants to know how to teach sports reporting more critically.

James Simon, who directs the journalism sequence at Fairfield University, writes: “I run the journalism program and I dropped the sports reporting course because it was too bats and balls. No critical thinking, just a bunch of game stories and player profiles. Do you worry about this? It seems to be a bigger problem in this course than others, perhaps due to the more casual kind of student this course attracts (at least at my school).”

Simon is correct. Sports is perceived as soft and casual. At far too many college newspapers, sports reporting does sink into a routine of game precede, game story, (one-source) profile, feature folo.

We need to push our students to do a regular in-depth story, to dig for newsworthy notebook items, and to analyze the university’s athletic budget. Some sports reporters are digging in, covering college sports program better than the local dailies.

There are several issues related to this that we can discuss in the next few weeks.
■ How do you deal with coaches, players and athletic directors who get irate when you start covering them more like an objective observer?
■ How do get student-reporters to think less like a fan and more like a reporter?
■ How do you get sports ‘writers’ to think more like sports ‘reporters’ – and not worry what the sports information director thinks. Too many sports reporters worry the SID will stop helping those who cover their program more critically. (In fact, SIDs would be spiting themselves by doing this. They need coverage of their teams – and few people cover the program better than the college newspaper’s sports department.)

The biggest issue, though, is defeating the perception that ‘sports reporter’ is an oxymoron. Too often sports journalism is dismissed as unimportant, as big kids writing about little kids. Sports do not directly affect our lives like city council meetings, U.S. Senate hearings, medical news and environmental shifts, we hear. In the newsroom, editors and reporters dismiss the sports staff as the Toy Department. But this is all unfair and untrue. There’s not another place I’d rather work than in sports, where the reporting is more compelling, more imaginative, and more connected to the readers. And, on big-game nights (and to some newspapers, that could mean Friday night football, Tuesday night basketball, NFL Sunday, or the opening week of March Madness), sports departments are much busier than any other editorial department. News departments get excited about Election Night, but sports departments deal with this pressure every week.

Still, critics of sports coverage have some points. Too much time is spent on game coverage. Just like a city council reporter, a sports reporter should not just go out to a game and write a game story and be done with it. A city council reporter should investigate the points made in these meetings by interviewing those who have more expertise and by observing first-hand whether, say, a bridge needs repairs. An hour spent near this bridge might reveal wood so splintered that it is falling down onto the heads of kids fishing in the creek below. Reporters need to review proposals, speeches and budgets much more critically. That also holds true for sports reporters. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. We need to change that culture (and perception.)

Not that sports reporters aren’t doing some solid reporting already. But perceptions can be stronger than reality. To offset that, we need to offer young reporters examples of solid, in-depth, critical sports coverage. The Best American Sports Writing series is the best collected series of this kind. (You can find countless examples in any of these annual books.) But we also need more examples at the college level. I plan to look for in-depth sports reporting examples in college newspapers, but I would appreciate if you could also offer examples by adding them as comments below this entry or by sending me the stories or the URLs so I can compile a list for advisers, professors and students themselves. (My email is in my profile section.)

To go back to James’ comment about critical thinking skills. Showing examples of good writing is one way to do this. The other is to push students to develop better critical skills through analysis papers in class. I plan to revise my own syllabus for next fall, when I next teach this course. In the past, I offered students tips for covering particular sports, brought in coaches, required a few readings, and asked for a brief analysis paper. In the fall, I plan to require students to read, assess and write critical papers about many more sports stories and books in addition to the regular reporting assignments and to investigate at least one issue related to sports.

In the next few weeks, I will post some reviews of books I plan to use for this course. In addition, I will post my and new syllabi – including one for a class called Sports & The Media. Please, send copies of your own syllabi so we can all share, borrow and steal ideas on how to better educate young sports journalists.

Download old Syllabus (PDF)

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