Sources say sports reporting needs to raise its game

While we don’t usually have a sports page here at the Download, the ongoing drama that is the Boston Red Sox points to a troubling trend in journalism: What, exactly, constitutes reliable sourcing in reporting sports news and how much responsibility does a media outlet have in following up on either their story or someone else’s?

It all started within days after the Sox epic collapse last month with everyone trying to figure out what went wrong with the Greatest Team Ever. The Herald was the first to report that Red Sox starting pitchers, on the days they weren’t starting, were channeling their inner-Bill Weld by quaffing a few glasses of amber-colored beverages in the clubhouse while their teammates were trying to win games and make the playoffs.

Some other reports soon emerged about sniping by different players about now-departed manager Terry Francona, ownership, the schedule, and each other. Then, last week, the earthquake hit: The Globe’s Bob Hohler reported that the team’s top three starters – Josh Becket, Jon Lester and John Lackey regularly drank beer and ordered fried chicken and sat around the clubhouse playing video games rather than sitting in the dugout to support their teammates. The story also included a devastating account of Francona popping painkillers while living in a hotel because of the breakup of his 30-year marriage.

Then the tsunami went national and viral. WHDH-TV (Channel 7) reported Tuesday that team employees said the pitchers not only drank beer in the clubhouse, they would bring cups of beer into the dugout and drink during the game. The Sox story is overshadowing the World Series.

But one of the problems is nearly all of the accusations are ased on anonymous sources with very little detail of how connected they are or how close to the situation they are. Hohler is a former reporter in the Globe’s Washington bureau so it’s safe to think he understands the use of sources in reporting. Channel 7 sports reporter Joe Amorosino, who had the dugout story, did a follow up from his two sources to confirm they “know what they saw.” And the Globe’s Peter Abraham tweeted a simple line that he was able to confirm the WHDH report but offered no more than that one line both on Twitter and in a story about the Sox vehemently denying the report.

“Feel free to take it up with my editors,” Abraham tweeted to one follower who questioned his terse reporting on Amorosino’s piece. “I’ve told you all I can. Hope you understand.”

Some question the Globe’s reporting because the paper’s owner, The New York Times, has a stake in the team. Some wonder what the motives of those leaking the information are. But the stories are not only doing damage to the team’s brand (and threatening its consecutive sell-out streak) but tossing mud on a number of people, including Francona, who admitted to Hohler he had marital problems and was taking painkillers prescribed by his doctor to relieve discomfort from more than 20 knee operations over the years.

But the trend in the sports section of the paper, which clearly does not report life-changing issues, is leaning on nameless quotes to buffer stories, and it’s not just the Globe.

Check out any number of Sunday notes columns these days and you can read quotes and observations from “one team’s general manager,” “a scout,” or “an executive who did not want to be named.” It’s in football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. ESPN this morning has five stories on its home page with the headlines starting with the words “Source” or “Sources.”

What, exactly, are the “sources” worried about and could those stories have been reported without sources? And, if not, did they have to be reported? And the elephant in the room question: Should reporters in non-news sections of the media be held to the same standards? That’s a question that newsrooms will be grappling with going forward.

                                                                                                                                                       –JACK SULLIVAN


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