*The ethics of sportswriting

September 10, 2009

Former NY Times baseball writer Murray Chass takes on the subject of anonymous sources in his most recent column.

This issue came up in baseball books a few times this year, most notably Serena Roberts’ biography on Alex Rodriguez. Critics took her to task for using A.S. and dubious testimonials about the ballplayer’s use of PED.

Chass writes

The object of the game is to get general managers, other executives and scouts to comment on a team not connected to the person who is being asked to give his opinion. This works for soliciting opinions about players, too, as well as trades completed or contemplated.

The writer asks what each person thinks of the team/player/trade and then turns the comments into a column….

By keeping these people anonymous, the writer deprives his readers of being able to judge for themselves whether their comments are valid. How do the readers know if those executives have the experience to make the judgments they are being asked to make?

The writer asks readers to accept his unwritten word that these anonymous people know what they’re talking about. If readers knew who they were, maybe they wouldn’t agree. But they can’t make that judgment because they don’t know who they are….

Perhaps the most important question is this: Is there a way for the writer to write the column he wants to write without using all of those anonymous quotes? There is.

The writer can ask the same people the same questions and use their responses to form a consensus assessment, which he can report without resorting to a string of quotes from one anonymous executive/official/scout after another. Or the writer can exercise some creativity and use the comments to form his own opinion and write that.

But if he wants to use what his anonymous people have said he can write that three-fourths of the people asked said this is what should be done or 90 percent thought that was the solution. The writer is still relying on anonymous people, but he is not allowing them their individual and possibly biased say.

But writers like anonymous quotes. For some misguided reason, they think anonymity makes what they write more important than does identification of the people they quote. It doesn’t.

At the moment, I’m reading Stefan Fatsis’ excellent A Few Second of Panic. Yeah, I know, it’s a football book, so sue me. Fatsis embedded himself as a kicker for the Denver Broncos and I marvel at the way he was accepted as “one of their own,” considering the often adversarial relationship between the athletes and the media, which is why so many writers have to rely on “unnamed sources” to do their job.

Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon had a funny bit on Pardon the Interruption about Cleveland Browns’ coach Eric Mangini’s machinations  to keep the identity of this week’s starting QB a secret (sorry, more foootball) and how that secret leaked to the media. You tell 50 guys, Kornheiser said, and 25 will be tweeting or on the phone about it within 10 minutes.

So, unfortunately, A.S. seems to be a necessary evil of the modern sports media industry (and let’s be fair, this happens in “real world” journalism, too). Without it,  you’d only get these putting out material 12 hours a day instead of 24.

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