The purpose of professionalism

Not to rehash the issue, but I got into a bit of a debate Thursday night on Twitter regarding professionalism among journalists. The debate revolved around a young intern who, I think, made an honest mistake in handling a situation, and I genuinely hate the idea that anyone felt the need to berate her. She’s learning, and everyone deserves the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. But my frustration came not from the mistake, but from those trying to defend it rather than learn from it.

Perception in this business is everything, because beyond any skill at writing or reporting or talking on camera, the most important asset journalists have is their reputation, and it needs to be protected above all else.

In discussing all of this, a Twitter follower offered a query to me and a few others:

This is posed as an either/or question, but I wanted to expand on why it’s really not.

We live in a very different media landscape than the one I grew up in, and in some ways it’s better. There are more voices, more outlets, more information being shared, more of a feedback mechanism for readers and fans. All of that is great.

There’s a downside, too, though. With the proliferation of fan-run blogs and Web sites, there is a diminished level of professionalism on many beats. I do not say this as a critique of anyone individually or of fan-run sites in general, many of which are excellent, professional and assets to the larger conversation surrounding a team or sport.

It’s just that, for those of us who went to journalism school, had mentors in the business, interned at big newspapers or TV stations, worked our way through the ranks — we learned something about how the job is done along the way. We learned how to deal with the incredibly difficult balancing act of building relationships and addressing reader demands while not sacrificing our objectivity, integrity or ability to be an adversarial voice when needed. This, I assure you, is not easy, and even the best of us still struggle with it routinely.

But if the barrier to entry into the marketplace of sports reporting is simply a keyboard and a Web site, there will be (and are) many folks on any given beat who don’t understand — or frankly, don’t care — about that balance. They are fans. And that’s fine. I love sports fans. I’m a sports fan. Sports fans are why I have a job. But when those fans enter a press conference or locker room or press box, they skew the perception of what our job is really about.

I know this sounds like a grumpy old man, “get off my lawn” type of oratory, and just another MSM complaining about independent voices and the loss of our gatekeeping power. I assure you, that’s not the case. I’m all for more people covering teams. I just want them to do the job the right way.

Imagine now that you’re a 19-year-old college football player. You’ve probably already been warned repeatedly about the dangers of interacting with the media. You work incredibly hard behind the scenes, and that work doesn’t always translate onto the field, and it certainly isn’t understood by reporters on the outside. You have a bad game. You do something silly off the field. You get hurt. Whatever it is, it invites some uncomfortable questions, and it’s our job to ask them.

But if there are fans on the beat, too, and they’re not asking tough questions, not writing unflattering things, creating excuses and suggesting bias from professional journalists — what’s that 19-year-old think? Which media members do you think he likes more — the guy who asks tough questions or the one who writes every loss into a win?

Imagine a  player — let’s call him, C. Newton. No, that’s too obvious. Cam N. Anyway, he spends a full season being lobbed softballs and sheltered from tough questions by the team’s handlers, then loses the Super Bowl. Two tough questions into the press conference, he walks off stage because he’s not used to being grilled. How does that help his reputation? How is it good for the reporters doing their jobs? How does it benefit the fans of that team? But it’s inevitable.

A coach has stories written about him by fawning media again and again, proclaiming him a hero, a builder of men, a truly virtuous member of society. Then a scandal breaks and suddenly every text message on his phone is deleted and an entire fan base wonders why that’s a big deal.

Again, it’s fine to be a fan. Fandom is why all of us started doing this in the first place. But you have to be able to check that emotion at the gates to the stadium and act as a professional, because when you don’t, it lowers the bar for everyone else there who is trying to do the job the right way.

Which gets us back to access.

There are certainly places that aren’t going to provide real access regardless of the professionalism of the beat corps. Kentucky basketball and Alabama football are just different animals, with coaches who have a very insular view of how their programs should be covered. I disagree with that view, and I think in the longterm it can be harmful to the organization and dangerous to the general public (see Ohio State, for example) but it’s simply a reality, and that’s fine.

But there’s also a reason many other schools are restrictive, and it’s because of the professionalism (or lack thereof) of the people wanting access.

A freshman says something dumb, as is apt to happen. Does the media follow up, ask if that’s how they intended to say it, offer them a chance to clarify? Or do they rush to tweet out the best sound bite possible? If even one “reporter” does the latter, there’s good reason for coaches to think freshmen shouldn’t be talking to the media.

A coach allows media to view practice. During 11-on-11 drills, they run a trick play. If even one “reporter” tweets that info out, why would that coach ever allow media at practice again?

A female “reporter” flirts with a player. It’s all harmless until that player thinks it’s OK to flirt with every female reporter.

A fan site offers to send all their questions for a one-on-one interview to the sports information staff to review in advance. That’s fine until that becomes the expectation for every outlet wanting a one-on-one.

After practice, players are made available for interviews. They’re surrounded by a scrum of reporters. A half-dozen of those reporters have their iphones or GoPro cameras out, recording every word of it, which will then be published, largely unedited, to their Web site. What’s my incentive to ask a good question that gets a good quote if it’s already being disseminated elsewhere? Suddenly there’s no good questions being asked.

The point is, professionalism should be the foundation, the benchmark by which we’re all judged. But when that bar gets lowered again and again, the perspective shifts significantly, and suddenly access is denied, glorification is required, and tough questions go unasked or unanswered.

My pal Chip Towers wrote about the draconian response Kirby Smart had to a story about an injured player and a completely fair question about how that injury occurred. In the piece, Chip pointed out the guidelines suggested by the Football Writers Association of America for access. You’ll not be surprised to learn most are not followed at UGA, and UGA is not unique. But it’s also true that, for us to expect professional treatment, we need to all act professionally. Indeed, the entire uproar at Georgia occurred because Smart blamed professional media for disseminating information that was actually being spread via fan message boards. Problem is, Kirby — and my guess is, lots of others — don’t know the difference.

So no, in the micro sense, it isn’t the end of the world if someone wears an actual cheerleader outfit into a press conference or if any fan with a GoPro can get a credential to practice. But in the macro sense, that stuff adds up over time, and it makes it harder for professionals to do their job, harder for players and coaches to separate the good reporters from the bad, and harder for fans to know who they can really trust.

And again, none of this is a call for credentials to be revoked or Web sites to be shut down. It’s just a request for all of us to do better.

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