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‘Time Out’

‘Time Out’

Do the demographics of sports newsrooms contribute to the sometimes negative coverage of Black athletes? 

By David Pluviose

It’s possible Adam “Pacman” Jones will never step foot on a football field again. The gamebreaking cornerback and kick returner for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans franchise has found himself making national headlines for all the wrong reasons since he came into the league in 2005. In the past two years, he’s been arrested six times and questioned in connection with several other criminal incidents. In April, newly named NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided to make an example of Jones. Goodell suspended the troubled player for the entire 2007 season, saying in a letter to Jones that his behavior had brought “embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club, and the NFL, and has damaged the reputation of players throughout the league.” Jones’ yearlong suspension is unprecedented, especially since he has yet to be convicted of any crimes. But his repeated high-profile brushes with the law had even fellow players reportedly approaching Goodell and demanding action.

Sports journalists and commentators of all stripes have piled on the criticism, recounting the various strip club and nightclub brawls and shootings Jones has reportedly been involved in. During a recent ESPN Radio interview, Tennessean reporter Jessica Hopp likened Jones to a “black cloud” hanging over Nashville, saying many fans can’t wait to be rid of him.

Although it’s difficult to defend Jones’ behavior, some journalists have delved deeper into his past, hoping to uncover insights into what may be fueling his present-day troubles. Going beyond the police reports, the journalists have talked to Jones’ relatives, friends, former coaches and others, revealing a history of poverty and violence that could provide context to the turbulence that is threatening to derail Jones’ career. Raised in an impoverished, drug-ridden housing project, Jones had to overcome the incarceration and shooting death of his father as well as the deaths of a high school mentor and the grandmother who raised him.

Why the lack of detailed and nuanced journalism examining the circumstances of Jones’ traumatic past on behalf of most media outlets? The demographics of sports newsrooms may provide a clue. According to recent statistics from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Blacks hold just 6.2 percent of newspaper sports department jobs — a startling disparity when considering that 78 percent of NBA players and 66 percent of NFL players are Black.

How does this disparity affect the coverage of top Black athletes? Could it be helping fuel the negative coverage of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who, by press time, was nearing the all-time career home run mark amid allegations of steroid use? Harry Pickett, the deputy sports editor for the Charlotte Observer, says having a diverse sports department staff “gives your department more pause.” Minority representation in the newsroom increases the likelihood that editors will say, “‘Let’s look at all sides of this and how we are playing this story. Let’s not rush to judgment,’” he says.

When former Dallas Cowboys all-pro wide receiver Michael Irvin and teammate Erik Williams were accused of rape in 1996, Pickett says some Observer editors felt the story should be featured on the front page of the newspaper. Pickett, however, wondered what message such a move would send to readers, especially concerning the controversial Irvin.
“I remember saying, ‘Time out. Why now is he a 1-A story?’” he says. “‘What’s he done? What do we know?’”

When it became known that Irvin’s accuser had fabricated the story, Pickett says he was relieved that he had been in a position to influence how the Observer presented the story. Instead of giving it front-page billing, as many other media outlets had done, the paper ran the story on the front page of the sports section with a smaller headline. The decision helped the Observer avoid giving the impression of guilt when, in fact, no crime occurred.

Pickett says having a more diverse sports staff makes it more likely that an editor can “think of ourselves in that position.

There may be more of a chance for someone in position to say, ‘Time out.
He’s not guilty of anything. This story is a big story and is moving like wildfire, and that does not mean he is guilty. And if you’re putting these big sensational headlines on these stories, you’re making him guilty.’”
Gene Farris, the international sports editor for USA Today, adds that a diverse newsroom gives rise to better journalism by allowing reporters to relate better with a wide range of story subjects.

“If you have people with diverse backgrounds, whether it’s racial, gender, ethnic or financial, they’re able to bring their own perspective to a particular story,” he says. “There might be an angle that otherwise might be missed. It goes without saying that another point of view can never hurt the pursuit of a story.”

However, Jeffrey Martin, a beat writer for the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, says that “the biggest casualty to layoffs and shrinking news hole and the economic factors that are affecting our industry has been diversity. There’s been a commitment to it, or at least a lot of lip service to it. Now, we’re in survival mode, so whatever causes we say we’ve had, we’ve now abandoned.”

But would boosting the number of Black sports journalists tangibly change the coverage of figures like Jones or Bonds? Boston Globe deputy sports editor Gregory Lee says Bonds’ surly reputation, not his race, is the major factor behind his negative coverage. Other MLB players who have been accused of steroid use, like Roger Clemens and Mark McGuire, have encountered significantly less critical coverage because, as Lee says, they “were good to the media.”

He points to Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers as an example of the power of a positive media image. “If you’re good to the media, you’ll be okay,” he says. Though the Celtics have had a string of sub-par seasons, Rivers, an African-American, “is a nice guy. If he was like Barry Bonds, he probably would be vilified.”

David Aldridge, however, disagrees that Bonds’ contentious relationship with the media has no racial component. The Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and TNT Sports reporter says, “There’s no question that race is a part of this. Bonds is not especially sympathetic — he’s not sympathetic at all — and he’s not allowed to be sympathetic. He is not allowed to have the possibility of doubt or explanation or anything that might make him any less than a villain.”

A Necessary Presence
At the behest of filmmaker Spike Lee, Morehouse College recently launched a journalism program to help address the low representation of minorities in sports newsrooms. But with media outlets across the country facing budget shortfalls and almost daily layoff announcements, will any of those graduates find jobs?

Farris says sports newsroom diversity “can be achieved because it has to be achieved. Reflecting your audience is good business. That’s how media outlets have to stay relevant, by reflecting different points of view — bringing those different points of view to the table.

“Even if you are in a situation where you have to downsize your staff and cut back, as bad as that is, that still doesn’t change the fact that your audience — whether in the newspaper, your Web site, whatever — doesn’t know and doesn’t care about that. All they care about is what’s in front of their eyes,” he continues.

Aldridge’s advice to aspiring Black journalists is to persevere despite the profession’s economic turbulence.

He says there will always be news, even if the medium may change.
“People are always going to want information,” he says. “If we embrace the fact early that the 21st century is going to be different in terms of how we disseminate information, let’s be in front of that curve and jump into it with both feet and find a way to get our voice out there. And whether that’s through traditional media or non-traditional media — let’s not be afraid of it.”

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