Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What sports reporters don't seem to understand, and a defence of dumb questions

The Leafs beat the Islanders last night in a meaningless game, but all the talk this morning is about Ron Wilson's verbal curbstomp of Howard Berger after the game. This comes on the heels of another media dustup, this time with Bruce Garrioch.

Berger has posted his comeback today, and you can read it here.

First, the obvious point: anyone who writes a sniveling diatribe about how much money they make from fans who criticize them has pretty much forfeited any right to accuse somebody else of being "hyper-sensitive".

Beyond that, both Berger and Garrioch are guilty of one of the most frustrating sins in modern journalism: thinking your audience is actually interested in journalism. We're not. We're interested in what you're covering, not the act of you covering it. And journalists everywhere, whether they cover sports or politics or entertainment, seem to forget this.

I care about the Maple Leafs, and I care about what Ron Wilson thinks in as much as he's the coach of the team. That's it. I don't care what it's like to interview him. I don't care whether he's a nice guy when you sit next to him on an airplane. I don't care about which players always stick around for interviews and which ones don't. I don't care about the time Darcy Tucker said something mean to you. And I certainly don't care if you had a great Martin Gerber story already half-written and Wilson ruined it for you.

Sports journalism is a tough job sometimes. So is mine. So is yours. That's life, and the whole world doesn't need to hear every detail.

I do care about some of the finer points of coaching strategy, but apparently the media doesn't because they don't ask those questions. Wilson was absolutely right when he called the Toronto media out on this point earlier in the year

Predictably, Berger's colleague's are circling the wagons. All that "impartial coverage" stuff goes right out the window when one of your own is in the line of fire, so we get nonsense like Sean McCormick's blog post today. Keep in mind that McCormick covers the Oilers, and had only managed to write two blog posts since Christmas. But he felt that the world couldn't do without his two cents on this issue.

Why? Because he's a journalist, and he assumes we just can't wait to hear what he has to say about journalism.

All that said, I do want to make one point in defence of the media. A lot of the criticism around the Berger incident has touched on his question to Wilson - "Did you get annoyed when you kept taking those penalties?" On the surface, this seems like an idiotic question. What's Wilson going to say, that he enjoyed them?

But there is a place for dumb questions in journalism. A reporter who asks a dumb question ("How did it feel to lose the game? What was going through your mind at the funeral?") isn't looking for information, they're looking for a quote. The dumb question is just a way to get the subject talking.

And there's nothing wrong with getting a sound bite, especially for a radio guy like Berger. That shouldn't be all that journalists do, and too often sports reporters don't seem to feel a need to dig any further. But asking questions like "do you get annoyed with penalties" is just part of a journalist's job, and it's a little disingenuous when Wilson feigns otherwise.

There's plenty to criticize Berger and friends for -- they're self-centered, they don't seem to understand actual X's and O's, and they insist on letting petty grudges color their coverage. But asking dumb questions isn't one of them.




15 comments:

  1. "Sports journalism is a tough job sometimes."

    This seems like a good time to paraphrase David Cross...

    Sports journalism isn't hard. I'll tell you what hard is. Try talking your girlfriend into her third consecutive abortion. Yeah, that's hard, that takes finesse. Sports journalists are just inconvenienced.

    Also, that McCormick blog post is just plain sad. If he wasn't ordered to do this by his employers, that's pretty embarrassing. Come to think of it, if he was ordered to do this by his employers, that's embarrassing on an even larger scale.

    Scott

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  2. "Beyond that, both Berger and Garrioch are guilty of one of the most frustrating sins in modern journalism: thinking your audience is actually interested in journalism."
    Ironically the appeal of your blog here is that it's mainly about journalism or, more specifically, about the rift between the mainstream Leafs media and bloggers such as yourself who can and do say whatever they want, in a colourful fashion and free of the fear of what others (those on the team or your employers) might think about it.
    Hell I'm not even a Leaf fan and they're having an extremely boring year but I've been reading here, not because of the information I'm getting but because of the way its covered.
    Also: David Cross!!!

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  3. Great post, DGB.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the "dumb question" bit. It's just a method used to get people talking. And, after all, we're in the business to get a quote, and a soundbite, like you said.

    Sports journalism isn't hard. I'll tell you what hard is. Try talking your girlfriend into her third consecutive abortion. Yeah, that's hard, that takes finesse. Sports journalists are just inconvenienced.

    Yikes, but I would have to agree with that statement.

    And I've never been much of a fan of McCormick. That blog post he wrote is just another reason why.

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  4. Great post as usual.

    I understand the role of dumb questions, and I’m sure Wilson does as well. It’d be nice if there were fewer of them, and more actual insightful hockey questions, but I’m not expecting that to happen any time soon.

    I don’t think Wilson was reacting to the dumb question though, he was using the dumb question as a launching pad to respond to what he deemed a disrespectful question the night before, and rightfully so. It amazes me that sports writers think they can ask ‘honest’ questions that are borderline attacks on coaches and players, but that the coaches players can’t be honest in their responses. They often show no respect for the people they’re questioning, but they expect unconditional respect in return? It’s ridiculous.

    The whole exchange was amazing though, I only wish the camera could have panned over to show Howard all red-faced and stammering.

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  5. Great post DGB! I used to like Berger a bit But I'm liking him less and less. And I think I'm with Wilson on this. far too much is being made of the stick thing. As for the McCormick blog post. LOL LOSER.

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  6. @Ben Dugas...

    Ironically the appeal of your blog here is that it's mainly about journalism or, more specifically, about the rift between the mainstream Leafs media and bloggers

    Well, first of all, clearly my blog is "mainly" about analyzing meaningless nonsense from 1993 in ridiculous detail, and then making a joke about Kyle Wellwood's tummy. The media analysis stuff is just thrown in occasionally to mix things up.

    I take your point, though. As I've mentioned before, my background is in journalism. It's what I have a degree for, and it's where I started my career. So I'm probably more interested in it than most people.

    If guys like Berger and McCormick were writing about journalism in some sort of useful way -- if there was some honest self-reflection going on -- that would be different. But they don't. Instead it's just the day-to-day ups and downs of the job that they think we're interested in.

    Imagine if half my blog posts were about the act of writing a blog. The server was down today, the interface for uploading images sucks, my feedburner stats are all screwy... Who would want to read that? How out-of-touch would I need to be to think anyone cared?

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  7. Imagine if half my blog posts were about the act of writing a blog. The server was down today, the interface for uploading images sucks, my feedburner stats are all screwy... Who would want to read that?

    TELL ME MORE

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  8. in reading Sean McCormick's blog i was struck at how this argument applies to both parties ... that being you can ask an aggressive question of a coach because by being coach he is in the spot light and subject to examination, but the journalist and his editorial content are beyond reproach? Your BOTH in the spot light hunny bunnies...all's fair in love and war!

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  9. Imagine if half my blog posts were about the act of writing a blog. The server was down today, the interface for uploading images sucks, my feedburner stats are all screwy... Who would want to read that?

    Go on....

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  10. How in the world would it have been mre meaningful in November when the leafs were still picked as being a terrible more likely to be in the Taveres Cup than the Stanley Cup.

    The article still comes across as implying Wilson could have done better...or was it worse (h said criticized the purgatory finish the Leafs are likely to get as well.

    Wilson has done very well with very little....what was Howards prediction for the team??? If he was willing to stand by his prediction then he would know that the whole damn season meant nothing. So per Wilson's comment, what is Wilson to do not try to win.

    Howie got it wrong.

    Wasn't this kind of like calling out a player when they play bad? I am sure Wilson would be happy to expound on good questions when they come.

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  11. Yeah I get it, I was just saying that, as you've proven, sometimes it is entertaining to read writing about journalism itself.
    Maybe a few years down the road (once the sports blogging craze has exploded and gone corporate) the meta bloggers will be attacking you for your response to Berger's response to your attack of him and they'll be all like "C'mon DGB no one wants to hear about your relationship with your server..." and then they'll follow that up with a post about how much the server you use sucks.

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  12. I too hate it when journalists complain about how tough their job is because of certain players/coaches. I also don't care and don't want to read about it.

    I also think dumb questions are important. You could ask the general safe questions after every game "How do you feel about the win/loss?", "why do you think you won/lost?, "what did you think of player A's move that cost/won the game for your team?".

    But after 82 games, it must get boring. I can't imagine being a baseball writer, for example, and having to write 162 different game stories in a way interesting enough for people to read every single one of them (and that's not including previews of games, preseaon games, the draft, free agency, trades, the postseason, etc.). You would have to ask different questions to keep from going insane.

    Same with hockey. A reporter at a daily needs to find different quotes to keep their stuff interesting. So questions start getting asked differently so those with an idea of how they want their story to be written ask questions to skew the answers to fit their story (instead of asking "why do you think you lost," they ask "your goalie let in five goals on six shots: was he thinking too much of showing up his former team?").

    Do I think sports journalists have a tough job? Yes. But do I want to hear from them how tough it is? No. The same I don't want to hear from the mechanic charging $70 an hour how tough his job is, or how tough the garbage man's job is, or how difficult it is to work out of a cubicle all day.

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  13. I agree with you that too much of sports journlism is about the journalist and not the game. I disagree about stupid questions.

    Having spent years on the recieving end of media calls, let me assure you there sure are such things as stupid questions. Lots of them. Stupid questions beyond measure. They ruin interviews, frustrate spokespeople and journalists alike and rarely produce much in the way of usable commentary.

    Berger is horrific at framing questions. Had Berger given a moment's thought to what he was asking about the stick measure, he wouldn't have raised Ron's ire. Had he asked a more open-ended question like, "How did you feel when the team took five straight penalties" he would have likely gotten a quote for the news, instead of being the news.

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  14. That McCormick post was disgraceful. He comes across as a bitter, immature and unable to distinguish his sarcasm from his reality. He claims Wilson has an "us vs. them" mentality. Fair enough. But using "us" in quotation marks doesn't hide the fact that he clearly shares that same mentality.

    Why else would he jump to defend Berger in the manner that he did? Why else would he say he doesn't give a crap about Wilson or the players? Impartial? No. Bitter? Definitely.

    Where does the bitterness come from? "Centre-of-the-hockey-universe" complex? Or is he just realizing that his career will never progress any further and he wanted to try and be a blip on this week's hockey radar?

    Oh, Sean - sorry, Mr. Hedger... I feel sad for you.

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  15. Sean's post sounds like an immature rant. The guy is speakin out of his plain and simple. Burke needs to rip him a new one. And besides rogers sportsnet tries too hard.

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