ESPN’s Adam Schefter found himself in hot water last week after journalists kept digging through emails procured during the Jon Gruden debacle and found that Schefter was a little too close for comfort with a source:
In one of them from July 2011, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter sent Allen the draft of an unpublished story that was published later the same day.
“Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked,” Schefter wrote. “Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust. Plan to file this to espn about 6 am ….”
ESPN released the following statement in response to the correspondence: “Without sharing all the specifics of the reporter’s process for a story from 10 years ago during the NFL lockout, we believe that nothing is more important to Adam and ESPN than providing fans the most accurate, fair and complete story.”
Schefter released a statement Wednesday saying it was rare for him to send a story to a source in advance of publication and he did so because of the “complex nature of collective bargaining talks.” He added, “In no way did I, or would I, cede editorial control or hand over final say about a story to anyone, ever.”
The overwhelming consensus in Schefter situation is that sharing a complete story with a source is a violation of the most basic tenets of journalism, which should lead to some serious and tangible consequences for Schefter. Poynter’s Tom Jones makes it clear that what Schefter did is a rather a serious offense in the field of reporting itself:
Now, would it be all right to share just a sentence or brief passage to make sure specific language about a convoluted subject is accurate? Perhaps, but only in very rare, last-resort cases and only to confirm facts, not editorial tone. It’s also OK, in many cases, to verbally tell a source what you’re working on and allow them to share their thoughts, preferably on the record.
But a reporter should never share the entire story and should never invite the source to offer something be “added, changed or tweaked,” as Schefter put it.
Fellow sports journalists also took to their various platforms to slap Schefter around for this indiscretion that happened more than a decade ago.
Andrew Bucholz at Awful Announcing noted the lack of ethics this demonstrates, as Schefter would seem to be biased toward the owners in his work, trading inside favors for inside information.
Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN and currently of The Atlantic, stated that Schefter never should have done it, noting that in her 20 years in the field “I’ve never let a source proofread, preview or edit any story.” (In defending Schefter against this and similar claims, business/sports analyst Darren Rovell tweeted that “we’ve all done this in the name of accuracy,” a claim he walked back a bit later.)
Jane McManus, a legendary sports journalist, outlined the way Schefter operates outside of journalism tenets for Deadspin in a piece titled: “Don’t be mad at Adam Schefter, he’s not really a journalist anymore” in which she notes:
Schefter isn’t so much an insider as he is a liaison. He has broken massive news, but he doesn’t do investigative reporting on every piece of information he gets. He can’t afford to alienate league sources, and he needs all 32 NFL teams behind him if he wants to continue to break news across the league.
We also have Barry Petchesky of Defector giving the situation a strong once-over with his piece “Adam Schefter is Pathetic and ESPN is Gutless.” He notes that Schefter’s actions don’t just violate “some arcane, ivory-tower, j-school ethical holdover” but really create a serious problem for sports journalism:
The story in question was not the typical Schefter pap. It would be one thing if Schefter was asking someone to sign off on the sort of disposable, 300-word filler item he usually traffics in. Tom Brady, please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked in this story reporting that you still have “the will to win.” That wouldn’t be fine, exactly, but also who cares.
But this story was actual news. It was a story about CBA negotiations between the players and owners during the 2011 lockout. It was a labor battle, with both sides keen to get their spin on events in front of the public. It was a story with real implications for the livelihoods of the people involved. And Adam Schefter chose to let someone from the management side of the bargaining table have final say on how it was presented.
I could easily turn this into a content curation piece titled, “Hey, let’s take Adam Schefter out back and beat the crap out of him!” And I suppose I could just join the clucking chorus of people who find Schefter’s decision to be a terrible violation of journalistic ethics to grind out a simple post. (Truth be told, I DO think this editorial offer and the cozy relationship between Schefter and former WFT President Bruce Allen, clear in the language in this exchange, are seriously problematic for someone purporting to be an objective journalist.)
Instead, I’m laughing at the sheer chutzpah of some “sports journalists” who are treating Schefter like a he’s a whore in church while ignoring that a large wing of the building has been converted to a brothel. How else could you explain “journalist” Jay Glazer’s actions at the 2010 NFL Pro Bowl where he’s begging the coach to let him call a play during the game?
Let me get this straight: I’m not supposed to take a cup of coffee from a source, but this chucklehead gets to badger a source into letting him become part of the action at a professional sporting event? I somehow doubt I’d get away with yelling out during a city council meeting, “Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor! Let me propose an amendment! Let me propose an amendment! C’mon….”
It’s not that I’m against sports or sports journalism. I love reading this stuff for info on my favorite teams and updates on my favorite players. I like to know more than who won or who lost, sure, and much of this field and many of my former students and colleagues have gone on to do a lot of good work in this area.
However, many people operating in the field of sports journalism long ago abandoned the “Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism” that so many of them are claiming to uphold in the wake of the Schefter revelation.
I’m not just talking about the way I can’t get a score in the first three paragraphs of a story because the writer has chosen to blather on about some random detail that they think gives them “insider cred.” Nor am I talking about every lousy rhetorical device and beat-a-dead-horse cliche that shows up in everything they write like rhetorical questions or “game of inches” mentions.
I’m not even talking about the way in which some of these self-professed austere authorities on journalistic writing can’t seem to find a period or a return key if their lives depend on it.
And yes, it still bugs me when reporters say that “Aaron Rodgers has thrown for over 300 yards, completing passes to eight different receivers.” No, he has thrown for MORE THAN 300 yards and of course the receivers are “different.” If we could have cloned Davante Adams, don’t you think we would have done that by now?
And don’t get me started on verbs of attribution…
I’ve given up on all of that ever changing, much in the way that I know nobody really goes the speed limit anymore and rolling stops are totally acceptable behavior unless a cop is nearby and really wants to put the screws to you.
I’m talking about how many of the supposedly vigilant journalists in this area of journalism violate significant journalistic norms on a frequent basis. Consider these areas of concern:
UNNAMED SOURCES: The rule in journalism is that we name our sources except in the most extreme cases. Those cases tend to be things like if the person’s life is in danger or the information is so explosive as to create serious consequences for the source. Think Deep Throat in Watergate, in which the information led Woodward and Bernstein to help bring down the presidency of Richard Nixon.
The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists makes the clear in two key points:
Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
Sports journalists hand out anonymity like Halloween candy. If you think I’m overstating this, consider this set of stories at the top of an ESPN feed:
You have three journalists, covering three sports, all for ESPN, relying on a “source” or “sources.” And I just randomly grabbed this while trying to make this point on a random weekday in October, so it’s not like I had to work really hard to find an example of this approach. In going through the stories, none of the stories name that “source” or “sources,” so we have no idea who said these things, how likely they are to be true or what those individuals’ agendas might be in sharing this information.
I asked a former student of mine who shall remain nameless (since we’re doing that now, apparently) who covers professional sports about the lack of named sources in this part of the field. He said, “If we made these people put their names on this stuff, they wouldn’t tell us anything.”
OK, I get that it can be tough to get a source to put their name on a statement calling Tom Brady a pretentious dingleberry or something, but that’s something we ALL face in EVERY part of journalism.
The question we often have to ask ourselves in journalism is if the juice is worth the squeeze: Can we get this from another source? Is this material worth giving someone the cloak of anonymity? What will this do to future interactions I have with this and other sources who don’t want to talk on the record?
I would wager a pretty hefty amount that a good percentage of the pearl-clutching contingent that is castigating Schefter right now have at least a few “sources said” pieces in their portfolio.
OBJECTIVITY AND FAIRNESS: Most ethical codes surrounding journalism require journalists to adhere to the premise of objectivity and apply the principles of fairness. What that means can vary, but here are some thoughts from a few codes that govern the field:
For every story of significance, there are always more than two sides. While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.
Ethical journalism resists false dichotomies – either/or, always/never, black/white thinking – and considers a range of alternatives between the extremes.
Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage…
So, be decent, fair, balanced and such, all of which don’t seem to be reflected in The Defector’s piece titled “Kirk Cousins Sucks:”
If the proliferation of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines has done one thing for us, aside from providing life-saving protection against a deadly virus, it’s to reveal exactly what sorts of dickweeds have always been surrounding us in our daily lives. For example, before the vaccines existed, I always thought of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins as a corny, harmlessly dim guy who I would never want to hang out with, but who for the most part seemed decent enough. He was just a dude. But now, I know the truth: Kirk Cousins fucking sucks!
And let’s go to Deadspin, which is where several of my students have told me that they hope to work someday:
Kyrie is Kyrie’s greatest foe. He has an affinity for becoming the catalyst of hoopla and endless Twitter conversations due to his willful and stupid decisions. We’ve become an audience to a man that’s failing and succeeding on a public stage and every hit and miss — on or off the court — is a fascinating watch. And because of that, one thing has become clear: Kyrie Irving has no idea what the hell he’s doing.
These are a few of the more tame ones from a couple publications that shamed Schefter that I can toss up without truly watching the folks at SAGE explode “Scanners style.” Let’s just say these places aren’t exactly taking an evenhanded approach to content.
UNATTRIBUTED OPINION AND SELF-IMPORTANT GARBAGE: Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I also seem to recall at least one editor telling me after I wrote that someone “luckily” escaped a fire, that “If they were lucky, the damned fire wouldn’t have happened at all.”
Maybe that’s a bit too restrictive for the world in which we currently live, but avoiding the inclusion of any opinion is definitely among the basic rules of journalism we supposedly all held near and dear as true bastions of the field. So let’s consider a few sports leads.
MADISON, Wis. — — The one big weakness of Wisconsin’s otherwise outstanding defense this season has been its inability to force turnovers.
(Side note: The Badgers gave up 41 and 38 points on consecutive weekends, so I’m not sure how outstanding that defense is, and no, holding Eastern Michigan to 7 points isn’t supportive evidence of that supposition.)
BATON ROUGE, La. — — LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price and the Tiger’s offensive line apparently have figured something out.
That could improve LSU’s prospects for the balance of what has been a turbulent season.
ATHENS, Ga. — — The final seconds were meaningless.
Except to the Georgia defense.
If I were grading these leads, I’d be scrawling “SAYS WHO?” all over the place.
There’s nothing wrong with not leading with the score, although I’d argue that’s what most people would actually want to read, as opposed to whatever self-important tortured prose the writer feels necessary to impose upon us to inflate their ego. However, if you’re going to dive into this field of random concept leads, let’s do it in a way that actually works.
Find people who say that Wisconsin’s defense is awesome, but sucks at getting turnovers, that LSU is having more turbulence this year than the final scene of “Passenger 57” and that Georgia’s D cared about the final seconds. Then actually quote those people and make that your lead.
Even worse than that is when the journalists decide that it’s super-important to mention themselves in their work. Again, I’ve given up on the “Told ESPN” or “exclusively revealed to WXYZ” or other self-aggrandizing crap that masquerades as “branding” and “marketing.”
However, here’s the lead of Mike Florio’s piece on the latest shoe to drop in the WFT email scandal:
Well, now we know why NFL general counsel Jeff Pash declined a request to be interviewed by PFT.
In one sentence, he references his publication (Pro Football Talk), pats himself on the back for requesting an interview, weaves in first person and essentially writes in the language of “smirk.” Not bad for a guy who took Schefter to task for not following standard operating procedures when it comes to real journalism. (And that was the best “smirk back” I could manage.)
In any case…
The bigger question of “Is all of this terrible?” deserves to be addressed here. If the people who publish this stuff are serving an audience, providing information and not harming others who don’t deserve it, OK, fine.
Go ahead and call someone a “dickweed” or spend six paragraphs explaining how a coach picking his nose was a profound moment that led to a 58-0 blowout win. Write opinion pieces that go on for about 7,000 words and include the word “doucheknuckle” or whatever.
But admit that’s what you are and stop trying to pretend you wouldn’t do anything outside of the restrictive tenets of journalism because its beneath the dignity of the field you hold in such high esteem. Be honest with yourself and your audience by saying something like, “No, it wasn’t smart what he did, but we’ve all bent a rule here or there and probably shouldn’t have.”
Or to put it in language these folks might understand:
“Let ye who is without an amazingly, viciously, painfully awkward personal or professional screw up look off the free safety and then use your laser-rocket arm to cast that first stone and put it right on the numbers when your team needs it the most. Otherwise, dig deep into your bag of tricks and diagram a better response in your playbook.”