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The Blazersedge Guide to Understanding the Media

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A Fanpost from reader Stalker about John Canzano opened up an interesting topic for me:  the relationship between Portland (particularly Blazer) fans and their media.  Having been around for a while now, we Blazersedge guys are passing familiar with most of the media people in the team's orbit.  Name somebody who covers the team.  We've probably talked with them on multiple occasions.  We are first and foremost a fan blog, of course, but we've also taken on attributes of the media ourselves.  From this half-world and with these connections we can bring some perspective about the folks who cover the team that you're not likely to hear elsewhere.  Most particularly, I'd like to sort out some of the myths and realities that often fly when people discuss and debate media figures.

Because some of the discussion about media folks is fraught with accusations, I'm going to deal with some of those first.  Keep in mind that this is only my observation, but it's founded in a modicum of experience at least.  Click past the jump to begin...

Do media folks sometimes make more of a story or issue than it deserves?  You bet they do.  Being a member of the media corps is like running on a treadmill with a ravenous lion waiting at the back.  Kitty needs to eat.  If you don't come up with something digestible and filling Kitty is going to eat you.  So you run to the next story, churn it out, and toss it to the lion.  But even as you toss the treadmill is still churning under your feet.  Where's the next morsel?  More running, more tossing, more sounds of snapping jaws behind you.  The treadmill never stops.  You are responsible for story after story after story. 

Media people usually know the difference between a cracker snack and a seven-course meal for Leo.  They also know that their livelihoods depend on keeping him full.  If occasionally they have to make a snack pass for a meal, that's part of the job.  They're going to glom a few of those crackers together, pump them with filling, write "YUMMY ZEBRA STEAK" in big, bold letters on the top, and toss away.  Column space and airwave hours have to be filled no matter what.

Fortunately there's usually enough real news that story inflation isn't necessary.  But yes, you do see it from time to time.

Do media folks have biases?  Of course they do.  And they do creep into the work.  But it doesn't usually happen the way you think.  Relatively few media people come with pre-existing, unchangeable biases towards their subject.  The ones who do almost always identify themselves as columnists or entertainers rather than pure journalists anyway, so you can see it coming.  However no media person is above wanting to be a correct, truthful, dependable source of information and analysis.  In order for that to bear out the things they say have to be correct, true, and dependably so.  Therefore while few media folks possess pre-existing biases, almost all of them tend to be biased towards whatever account they end up putting in print or sending out over the airwaves.  Their reputation hangs on the credibility of their reports and therefore they'll tend to defend the credibility the same way they'd defend their reputation.  Obviously they've done research before making their stories public so most of them are on highly-defensible ground.  However occasionally you'll get a story from a single source (albeit highly placed) or a rumor that turns out to be either untrue or the wrong perspective on the truth.  When that happens the guy who ran with the story is often the last guy to realize or admit it isn't right.  That bias creeps in fairly often.

This is also one of the reasons that I, being somewhat freed from the need to feed the lion the same way journalists do, will tend to be more cautious in stating something as fact and quite clear about what is actual news versus my own opinion.  I fear that I wouldn't be above this kind of bias.  I doubt most humans would.  So I try to get into the 90th percentile of certainty, or at least reason, before I'll put something out there as bankable lest I get stuck in the tar of my own anticipation.

Do media folks love or hate the teams they cover?  Most I've encountered are interested in the team.  Most also enjoy the rub they get when the team does well or at least makes news.  In that sense you could equate media folks with fans, as they generally like the team succeeding.  The motivations are quite different though.  I've not met many media people outside of the organization itself who ride the ups and downs the way fans do.  Thus I'd say accusations of "loving" or "hating" the team are generally inaccurate.

More common, I think, are feelings towards individuals in the organization.  These feelings are often developed based on how easy or difficult those individuals make the media member's job.  Some are also based on observations, reported or not, that media members can make because of their proximity.  Either way, the positive or negative feelings towards the individual are based on criteria wholly different than the general public employs (how good a player is, what they say on camera, etc.).  Therefore the general fan's assessment of a media-person's feelings toward a given subject are usually inaccurate in both absolute and causal terms.

Do media folks make up stories to get attention or help/hurt someone?  It may happen, but I'll be honest with you...I've not seen it.  Talking to folks in all stripes of media I've come away with the impression that they honestly believe what they're saying, at least in the moment they say it.  I've not talked to anyone and then listened/seen/read them later and thought, "Wait a minute!  They're totally lying!"  For various reasons media folks may not share everything they know.  They may not always bring both (or all) sides of an issue to the fore.  But they're generally not making stuff up for your benefit and they're not lying about how they feel or what they see.

Do national media folks have a bias for or against certain teams?  National media folks want one thing:  a good story.  Interesting stories increase their readership/listenership/viewership.  I've got a secret for you too.  Yes, jetting all over the country to cover sports is a glamour job the same way doughnuts are a glamour snack for Homer Simpson.  Anyone remember the episode where Homer sold his soul to the devil, got sent to hell, and had to eat sixty billion doughnuts?  Sure, Homer savored every last one but most of these guys ain't Homer Simpsons.  At a certain point the routine takes on a sameness.  You're talking to athletes getting the same six quotes from every one of them no matter what the position or uniform.  You're covering the same game with the same timing, boundaries, and rules.  A great story is about the only thing that breaks up the monotony.  So these guys would sell their left leg to find one.  If it appears one is developing they're going to root like heck for it to happen.

Many of the accusations of media bias come from fans of teams who don't have a great chance of generating good stories.  They're not vying for a championship.  They don't have the easily-recognizable star.  They don't cater to high-population areas.  I wouldn't go so far as to say national media folks root against those teams.  They're going to enjoy their Ruth's Chris porterhouse after the game just the same no matter who wins.  They're going to be on the plane the next morning and off to the next assignment no matter what.  The win or loss won't stick with them a bit.  However if you were faced with a choice between covering the Golden State-Sacramento game or the L*kers-Cavaliers, which would you choose?  Which would bring out more enthusiasm or better stories?

Good media folks can find good stories in anything that comes their way.  They'd be able to cover Blazers-Cavaliers as well as L*kers-Cavaliers.  But you can't blame them for preferring the easier road from time to time.

Is Media Member X an idiot?  Usually not.  Most of these guys are accomplished and quite mentally agile, at least in their chosen field.  If the coverage begs to differ from time to time I would invite you to scour up every word that you've made public:  every paper you've turned in for school, every sentence you've uttered in a job interview, everything you've posted here or said when calling in to the radio.  I'm comfortably sure that in everyone's work you will find one or two shining gems of inanity.  These guys have an incredibly hard job.  Every time they speak professionally tens of thousands of people hear.  99% of those words hit home.  That other 1% probably doesn't reflect much besides them being human.  If we had to fill ten inches of column space or three hours of radio on a consistent basis I wonder how we'd do, especially after the first couple of years.

Having heard and addressed these questions I now have a couple to pose.

First, cribbing from my old friend Pontius Pilate, what is truth in sports?  Pick any issue you wish to discuss.  Can you find one, immovable, incontrovertible truth...even a small one?  You can't name a statistic without someone else coming up with another to counter it.  You can't praise a player without someone else coming up with six others to consider.  Who is the best rebounder in the league?  The best scorer?  The team that gets the most out of its talent?  You're never going to answer those questions.  Nor will everybody agree what went on in last night's game, let alone the causes for such.  There is no truth.  There are just multiple layers of analysis, some probably more accurate and meaningful than others but none in themselves sufficient.  Understanding this it's easy to understand that even the best media people are only bringing you a slice of the truth.  Even when quoting the GM word-for-word they can't bring you the whole picture because the GM doesn't have it either.  Complaining because a media member doesn't bring the same slice of truth that you hold is presumptuous and downright counterproductive.  The primary benefit of these sources is that they bring us stuff we didn't know and open up new possibilities to consider.  The more slices you have the more complete the picture becomes.  Even if you never arrive at a single, immutable truth at least you piece together the house in which it resides, giving you a better sense of its shape and purpose.

Second, what good is it really to exhaust a year's supply of vinegarish causticity upon these folks when they're just doing their jobs?  This is especially true when, as we just said, most of the sturm und drang comes because they had the temerity to say something that people disagree with or haven't considered.  Those can actually be the most valuable pieces of information we get, even if they ultimately bear less truth than the maxims with which we are more comfortable.  To be challenged is not to be wronged.

I remember early on in the history of Blazersedge a prominent media member told me that this was one of the few sites he visited because even when readers disagreed with him, they did so in a fair, provocative, and informative way.  The world in general seems to have gotten much more bitter since then and I often see comments that reflect it.  I wonder if his assessment would be the same now?  I always cringe when I see someone take out the whipping stick on a media person with no real reasoning except to vomit emotion.  At the end of the day these are real people.  They have to do their job by whatever conscience guides them.  Any of them who would change their ways because some anonymous dude got randomly and indefensibly upset isn't worth their salt. Criticism, even if sharp, is helpful when well-explained and justified.  Maybe folks will remember this article next time they're tempted to leave that other sort of comment.

Love them or hate them, the media will be with us as long as there are sports to be watched.  Swallowed without consideration any source is going to lead you astray.  But properly understood and chewed upon, it's perfectly possible to make a healthy, satisfying meal out of the cornucopia of sources available to us.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)