A Prospective Guide for Credentialed Bloggers

Introduction

One of the best parts of spending a week in Las Vegas covering Summer League was the chance to talk to other people who either cover or are a part of the NBA.  One of the hot topics of the week was the credentialing of bloggers.  As a blogger myself, writing for a site with both team and Summer League access, I heard and participated in a fair amount of such discussions.  One of the oft-repeated lines which pained me to no end went something like this:

 

Oh, I’ve read (or heard about) your stuff and you’re not really like a blogger.

I think that was meant as a compliment and for the sake of discussion I took it that way, but it’s also seriously in error in at least a couple ways.  First, and most obviously, I am a blogger!  This is what I do.  This is a good thing to be.  This is what I want to be.  As far as this league goes other than driving TV ratings through the roof with my incredible good looks I can’t imagine any other form of coverage or communication I’d be better at.  Second, our work here (at least in terms of quality and value, if not style) is not so unique if you look around the blogging world.  I hope it’s good, but I know for a fact that many, many people write incredible stuff every day.  Why, then, are bloggers defined by the worst examples of the medium instead of the best?  Why is anything decent and responsible defined as "not really blogging"?   How is this perception affecting the credentialing process?

As conversations continued it became apparent that there were two root causes for suspicion of blogs and therefore concern over credentialing them:

1.  Many folks, including people who work for teams and deal with fans and the public, just aren’t that aware of blogs.  They know the medium exists but they aren’t familiar with the specific work that’s going on in their communities.

2.  Even those who are familiar with blogs are concerned about credentials because compared to other credentialed media bloggers don’t have oversight, a clear system of checks and balances, or anything above themselves to which they subscribe and to which they can be held.

The more I thought about these issues the more I felt it’s time for us to have a wider discussion involving bloggers, teams…everyone involved really.  To help facilitate this discussion I’m going to post a couple of pieces.  I’m beginning with something that is probably needed in one form or another:  a credentialed blogger’s code of ethics.  The second piece, likely coming tomorrow, will be addressed to team officials who have the potential to deal with bloggers and who make credential decisions.

Purposes and Goals:  An Important Note to Fellow Bloggers

Before I get into the ethics piece itself, some necessary caveats for my fellow bloggers:

--I am not in any way, shape, or form suggesting that this is the only standard by which blogging should be done.  I’m not suggesting it’s the best standard or even a good standard!  Rather I am synthesizing information I’ve gleaned from our credential process and from interaction with other folks who are concerned about this issue from a team and accountability point of view.  To be effective this work has to lean pretty heavily on their needs and much more lightly on the needs, views, and prerogatives of bloggers.  Along with this comes the acknowledgement that the blogosphere would be a poorer place if everybody did it the same and that some blogs are infinitely better because they don’t adhere to standards like this.  This isn’t about homogeneous blogging, it’s about the things a blogger might need to consider if credentials are part of the plan.

Some blogs may not adhere to all of these and may already be credentialed.  That’s fantastic!  Their teams are out ahead of the curve.  It’s assumed, though, that the audience here will primarily be teams and blogs who have not dipped their toes in the water yet, who need something more to feel comfortable.

--Some bloggers will rightly say that these are simplistic and basic standards that shouldn’t have to be repeated.  This is also correct.  This is not meant to be a patronizing, pedantic lecture.  In fact most bloggers I know already adhere to similar standards.  But understand that this is not just for bloggers but for the people who will evaluate bloggers for purposes of credentialing.  There is value in having these things written down somewhere, spoken out loud, available for reference.  It helps people outside the community see that bloggers do care and can have accountability. 

Even though most bloggers are quite responsible, people don’t know that.  It's easier to read headlines and horror stories than to spend time getting to know people.  When I identified my affiliation at Summer League some folks literally stared at me as if I was going to sprout six heads and do something radically inappropriate right on the spot.  Part of the reason they don’t know that most bloggers are responsible is that bloggers themselves haven’t flat-out said it, or explicitly said that they care about responsibility, or defined what responsibility looks like to them.  If we don’t communicate that in public at least a little bit it’s hard to blame other people for not picking up on it.

In other words, if you're saying, "Well...DUH!" please understand this isn’t just for us.  It’s for all the people watching us.

--Some bloggers will say that they already do these things and they still don’t have credentials, so what difference does it make?  This is meant to be a beginning point for discussion, not a “how to get credentials” manual.  Each team is different in its evaluation and credentialing process.  Maybe something like this could give you a fresh start in opening that door with your team.

--This is not meant to be the final word.  If this gets any traction at all it will evolve with feedback and time.  Think of it as a living document, growing as people contribute their ideas and views.  I expect that will be a major part of whatever discussion might develop from this.  Some things could be added, others taken away.  That’s fine by me.

In the end the dream is to have something that a non-credentialed blogger could show to their team and say, “This is what I adhere to.  This is what you can hold me accountable to if you credential me.”  Even better would be team officials reading something like this and saying, “We could adapt this for our use and credential a blogger or two who would agree to adhere to these standards.”  Somewhere, sometime, somebody is going to have to do the work to make something like this a reality.  Teams and bloggers will need to come to an accord on matters like this.  So why not start now?

An Attempt at a Code of Ethics for Bloggers Seeking Credentials

Each item has an assertion and an explanation of its importance.  The main points are in bold.  Feel free to skip the explanations if you already have a handle on it.

1.  I will not seek or expect to receive credentials until I have a proven track record.

Blogging tends to be a temporary medium.  Bloggers themselves have trouble deciding which blogs to link in their sidebars because half of them disappear within six months.  Teams cannot issue credentials in that kind of chaotic environment.  Ideally team officials should already know your name and your site before you even make a request, providing they have paid attention at all.  They need to see a long history of quality writing, proven readership, productive interaction with your community, plus ideally a good relationship with and citations from other media.  They need time to develop a comfort level with you and your work.  We’re talking in the range of a couple years of quality work, not a couple months.  Some patience is required on the blogger’s part.

A corollary to this assertion is that if you request credentials, get denied the first time, and then flame the team openly in your blog for turning you down don’t expect the answer to change in the future.  Bridge.  Gasoline.  Match.  Enough said.

2.  I will not attempt to shortcut the team’s credential process.

It seems like blogging has been around forever, but the idea of blogging vis a vis media credentials is still in its relative infancy.  Trust is vital.  Misrepresenting one’s blog, motive, readership, or anything else to the team in an attempt to gain credentials breaks that trust, as do obvious fraudulent acts like trying to gain access using other people’s credentials and the like.

3.  I will keep my writing friendly to all ages and backgrounds and adhere to standards of public discourse.  I will moderate the blog to encourage the same from other contributors to my site.

This is a huge issue in the blogging community and writers rightly fall on all sides.  Profanity, for instance, is indispensible to some blogs and writing styles.  Nobody is arguing against that.  Nevertheless, we live in a world where branding is everything.  Credentialing a blog isn’t exactly stamping the team’s logo on its masthead, but it is a form of tacit approval.  The idea is that people interested in the team, including fans and season ticket holders, are going to be reading what you write on the basis of your access.  The team is not likely to view liberally-sprinkled F-bombs in the posts and comments as congruent with the image they want to portray.  One call from a grandma in Poughkeepsie is enough to get ads removed from network TV, let alone your credentials.  Teams cannot go very far out on a limb for you in these matters. Again, not every blog should run on this basis, but blogs who seek credentials will probably have to deal with this reality.

4.  I will dress appropriately when I cover the team.

It may seem trivial, and I can see half of you rolling your eyes as we speak, but this is the kind of “first impression” thing that can affect your reputation and standing.

Journalists avoid all team-specific clothing because it’s against their code to display any kind of fandom while covering the team.  Bloggers can’t do that.  Bloggers are, for the most part, fans.  That is their strength.  For bloggers appropriate dress is not determined so much by what we are as by where and with whom.

In the stands and in public wearing a team jersey is a sign of support.  Not so backstage or in the locker room.  In those venues the only people wearing jerseys have earned the right to wear them.  They have worked all of their lives for that right, they defend it every year against people trying to take their jobs, and they all know people who have tried but fallen short and now can’t wear the uniform.  Out of respect nobody else but players should be wearing a jersey in that place and time.

This is also true to a lesser extent with team logo clothing.  Some form of it is usually worn by team employees on game night.  Many of them have also worked years to gain their positions and earn the right to bear that logo in that context. 

A site-specific t-shirt or polo shirt is a great option for attire.  It identifies your particular affiliation and can be claimed as uniquely yours.  Failing that, checking out the sartorial habits of those around you should give a clue as to what’s appropriate backstage.

5.  I will understand what’s fair game to report and what is not.

Once a team issues a credential it has fairly little control over the reporting that is done on the basis of that access.  It sounds silly, but this appears to be one of the deep-seeded fears:  that some blogger will walk up to a player and ask, “So, how’s that divorce going?”   Teams worry about grandstanding bloggers trying to get hits and make a name for themselves by asking inflammatory questions and provoking inflammatory responses.

Teams also know that once you’re in that locker room you’re going to hear things that shouldn’t go beyond the room.  Overheard venting by players and coaches, team officials on their cel phones, discussions assumed to be off the record, personal matters that lapse into the professional venue…all of these have the potential to do unnecessary damage to the team’s image if not handled carefully.  Journalists usually know what’s fair game and what’s beyond the pale.  Do bloggers know?  Do they even care?  Teams want an answer before they allow you in the locker room.

The following guidelines could be helpful:

--Whether it’s with a team official, coach, player, or other member of the media, any conversation that is off the record never gets printed, in whole or in part.  That information can help your own, personal understanding but it cannot be repeated.  You will be tested.  Blow it once and your credibility is gone.  You may receive a temporary ratings boost, but what good is that if you can never get information afterwards?

--Personal matters have to be handled with the utmost respect and caution.  This is especially true with a player’s relationships and/or public image.  Unless there’s a tangible reason to inquire about or print something, leave it alone and report on the game.

--Things you overhear or observe about the meta-functioning of the backstage area need to be handled with caution as well.  People want to conduct their personal and professional business without feeling that they’re shadowed every moment by prying eyes, otherwise they become virtual recluses.  Even with a casual mention like, “The assistant coach stepped out for a smoke before answering our questions” how do you know he didn’t just promise his wife he’d quit?  If it’s not pertinent, leading directly to a better understanding of the game or the team, leave it out.

--When in doubt, either because of the appropriateness of the subject matter or because you’ve heard it third-hand, ask the party involved or the team P.R. department if it’s OK to print.  The vast majority of the time the answer will be yes, but on that one occasion in ten when it’s not you will save a ton of trouble.

6.  The line between observed fact and my opinion will be clear in my writing.

Getting credentialed gives an implied authority to your words.  You have been there.  You have observed first-hand.  You have heard authoritative figures speak.  Traditional journalists make their living conveying facts and quotes.  Blogs, by their nature, mandate a hefty dose of opinion and discussion alongside those facts and quotes.  The blogger has a responsibility to delineate between those two genres of information.  Things that are directly observed and quoted generally should not mix with extrapolation or opinion unless the latter is clearly identified.  Otherwise the reader is apt to take the blogger’s opinion as fact…or worse, attribute that opinion to a team official instead of the blogger. 

If you convey Statistical Observation X as fact, followed by GM Quote Y, but then without differentiation launch into Opinion Z that a player is going to be traded, readers are going to assume that the three are bundled and carry equal weight.  They are also apt to assume that since Quote Y and Opinion Z are linked, the GM must hold Opinion Z as well.  This will cause all kinds of consternation in the front office when your story gets linked everywhere.  Fact and opinion are both necessary, but you have to be clear which is which.    

7.  Criticism is fundamental to the process but I will criticize in a defensible way, remembering that I’m talking about human beings.

Critical thinking is necessary when discussing sports.  Nothing is 100% solid.  Different viewpoints have validity.  Nothing is perfect.  Improvement is always possible.  Any writer who forgets this quickly loses credibility with readers and becomes a non-factor.  It’s not a matter of whether to critique, but how.

In general criticism should be respectful, give the benefit of the doubt where possible, and be based on commonly observable data.  For instance, there’s a difference between saying, “Player X looked lost on defense” and saying, “Player X is an idiot!”  Ideally if called out on your criticism you should be able to sit down and look at the tape and say, “Here are the things that prompted the critique.”  For instance, in the previous example if Player X appeared to miss rotations on three plays in a row you could theoretically point that out and the player or another party could either confirm it or show why the observation you made doesn’t necessarily lead to the criticism you put forth.  The “idiot” option doesn’t leave that avenue open. 

Shorthand is not your friend while critiquing.  Credentials and crusades seldom mix well.

8.  I will respect the constraints and deadlines of other media in the locker room and not interfere with their jobs unduly.

Both new and traditional media have a place in the locker room.  The difference is the traditional media member has a 10:00 deadline and a $50,000 a year job riding on it.  When possible let them get what they need first and don’t get in their camera shots.

9.  I will not ask the same three questions to the GM and coach all the time.  I will use the particular assets of a blog to my advantage and the team’s advantage.

At this point in its evolution traditional media has a clear blueprint:  ask the head coach, ask the GM, ask the superstar, synthesize as short and clear of an answer as possible, then publish.  They have limited space and time and are absolutely required to chart the most obvious course, getting the most bang for their buck.  Speaking frankly, the world doesn’t need a seventh person asking the same questions of the same people that six others are.  Blogs have several unique assets:  unlimited space, fewer time constraints, a devoted and insatiable readership.  It’s fine to piggy-back on what the traditional media does but value increases exponentially when a blogger branches out, asking questions of people the traditional media folks pass by and printing responses they don’t have space for or interest in.  How many people does a credential open the door to interviewing besides the head coach, GM, and star player?  How many stories will not get told unless you take an interest in them and convey them?

10.  I will not get co-opted just because I have credentials.  I will remember where I came from and what I am there to do.

We’ve talked extensively about fidelity, responsibility, and caution, but it’s also easy to go the other way.  When you look a player in the eye and talk to him it becomes harder to criticize him.  When you’re happy the team credentialed you and you feel part of the bigger unit it’s hard to call the organization to account.  This is good to the extent that it makes us cautious in how we do these things.  But it’s easy to slip into being a house organ, which does no good for the blog or the team.  Appropriate credibility and distance are necessary to good reporting and evaluation.

It’s also easy to get co-opted into the journalism standard.  Bloggers suffer when they try to be half-baked journalists instead of fully-baked bloggers.  It’s necessary to develop a relationship with traditional media and it’s necessary to learn some of the mores and folkways of the behind-the-scenes environment from them.  But some things other media do are not the best approaches for bloggers and some things they eschew are exactly the approaches bloggers should be taking.  The standard of objectivity which requires journalists to deny any fan-hood in order to maintain credibility will kill a blog dead in its tracks.  At Summer League another stark difference between traditional media and bloggers was pointed out to me.  Traditional media live and die by the quotes they get.  Much of their work happens in the moments just after a game or practice.  I don’t necessarily need quotes to do my job well.  They are helpful and illustrative, but often what people do and what happens in the space around them is as informative as what they say.  Indeed, sometimes what they say can be misleading.  A journalist would get killed for making those kind of judgments.  A blogger often lives by them.  Neither approach is better or worse.  Each has strengths and weaknesses.  The world is better off for having both.

Next Up:  The other shoe...suggestions to help teams understand and deal with blogging and bloggers.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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