Saturday, November 18, 2006

Failing the steroids test

Across the profession, it is acknowledged that sports journalists failed in their profesional responbilities in reporting the steroid scandal. During the highly publicized home run record chase of 1998, rumors persisted of steroid use by Mark McGwire and (to a lesser degree) Sammy Sosa. But reporters who asked the tough questions were silenced by the athletes, team officials, and even their colleagues.

Now, with the steroids hearings and the BALCO scandal behind us, sportswriters have come forward with the obligatory introspective mea culpa. The October 2006 Editor & Publisher featured a scathing article, "Caught (Not) Looking," by Joe Strupp, is an instructive read.

But even now, sportswriters need to keep ethically sensitive on such matters. Sports today still are not steroid-free. That's not the only problem -- the list would start Walter Camp spinning in his grave. Sports stars arrested, violent athletes, violent fans, violent parents of athletes, gambling, teams extorting cities for new stadiums, that dang new NBA basketball. For the sports journalist with an appetite for investigation, the cafeteria is wide open.

The problem is that sports journalists are fans and friends.

When a sports journalist cannot set the pom-pom aside, it affects objectivity. Most of the baseball writers who covered the 1998 home run chase admit that they got caught up in the excitement too. Sports writers need the moral courage to go against the flow and report the situations that anger their fellow fans.

For many sports journalists, especially at the higher level, fanship slides toward friendship. Their professional relationship with athletes can morph from journalist-source to friend-friend. Although pro athlete superstars might not be looking for new friends, they also know how treating sports journalists as friends can be useful in promoting themselves.

Of course, the professionally ethical journalist knows how to separate friendship from work. When a journalist's friend becomes the object of media scrutiny, for whatever reason, that journalist takes steps to preserve his or her professional objectivity. Often that involves withdrawing from the journalistic project to preserve the friendship.

But to the journalist eager to retain his or her seat on the press table, and the buddy-buddy with the sports celeb, the situation can get complicated. Important issues (like steroids) go unreported, because sports journalists would rather "play ball" then lose a high-profile friend.

The situation can only get worse in today's sports media environment. The question is, What is more important to sports journalists? Is it more important to uncover the negatives of sports, to ensure that the billions spent by fans are not pouring down an ethical sewer pipe? Or is it more important to hang on to their share of the spotlight?

John Carvalho


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