Rush to Judgment

For such an incredibly enormous industry, sports journalism receives relatively small amounts of spotlight on its ethical mishaps. Over the past several years, I have begun noticing an industry-wide flaw in the way in which sports journalists cover under-developed stories. It is not limited to a single company, but rather the entire profession has failed a world audience. Sports journalists no longer wait for stories to mature. They do not allow facts to guide a narrative. Instead, sports journalists have sought to connect dots that are simply not present and introduce stories that do not exist.

One of the most notable erroneous narratives derives from a football scandal at the Pennsylvania State University. While many sports media outlets provided terrific details about an alleged sexual assault case that occurred on campus, many others began to attack the school’s biggest names in hopes of stirring a story. For example, major outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated began vilifying famous university affiliates close to the story who had no role in the crimes that were committed. The juicer names such as Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier quickly became the foundation of the story and took focus away from what was not only important, but also the truth.

Penn State is not the only example, however. Oklahoma State University’s football team experienced a similar fate the following year. Rather than allowing a story on impermissible benefits and academic fraud to run its course in the judicial system, Sports Illustrated comprised a lengthy report on the matter. In the report, Sports Illustrated failed to address the voices of the accused party. The unbalanced report created a widespread belief that the university was guilty of the allegations. Interestingly enough, when the story began to mature through investigations, it was determined that the many of the alleged crimes had not actually transpired. Despite this conclusion, there was little change in the minds of the original audience. This is because many of the sports media outlets that created a guilty narrative were reluctant to facilitate stories spotlighting their mishaps.

This brings us to a broader ethical dilemma within the profession. The sports journalism industry has little to no oversight to prevent falsified or misrepresented stories from generating. Even when it is proved that a particular narrative was misleading or just plainly wrong, many media outlets fail to adequately address their role in spreading falsified stories.

In the Penn State University case, I would maintain focus on the names that are most significant to the story. While associating other popular names to the story could possibly generate more attention, I would find it more important to keep an emphasis on what is factual. Meanwhile, in the Oklahoma State University case, I would go about providing a more balanced report to ensure that all perspectives have at least been given the opportunity to share their side of a story. If Sports Illustrated had taken this course of action it could have allowed its audience to form its own perspective rather than provide it with one.

Personally, I believe the best way to properly go about preventing this phenomenon is to implement an ombudsman of sorts. Unlike traditional ombudsmen in the journalism environment, this oversight should be mandated by the federal government. By enforcing legislation that requires sports media outlets to possess a source of self-critique there would be much more transparency in the production of original narratives, but more importantly, there the truth would shine brighter.

The ethical boundaries in sports journalism have seemingly blurred over the past several years. The industry is moving further and further away from democratic ideals. The constant rush to judgments has stained the industry’s reputation. Unfortunately, the industry governs itself and there is no way of punishing it for its wrongdoings. A lesson on journalism ethics would surely benefit the industry at large. However, nothing will change unless the industry can find a means of external regulation.

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