Tuesday, August 10, 2010

One Hand Washes Another

In the aftermath of last week's Brett Favre saga revolving around the disclosure by virtually every member of the NFL media that Favre had texted teammates of his imminent retirement, the expected occurred. Rather than merely acknowledging that they jumped the gun on a story that was not a story, those reporting the story resorted to two old tactics--revisionism and blaming their audiences. Neither is very flattering.

On local networks, those covering the Vikings have been in full offensive mode, pouncing on listeners and numerous straw men in an attempt to save face. The gist of the argument has been as follows: "There is nothing wrong with reporting a story and Vikings' fans that are upset over the reporting are only upset because it casts their new hero in a negative light."

For a select few, that logic might hold. Most, however, likely regard the journalism as falling well short of the standards expected of those who earn a living reporting.

The problem with last week's reporting on Favre's "imminent" retirement is not that it proved inaccurate in at least some important respects or that it cast a shadow over Favre's legacy (one that he hardly has had time to build in Minnesota). Rather, the problem is that those reporting relied on purported tangible evidence, text messages, as the basis for their reporting, yet nobody bothered to produce, or even to review any text message. And, to date, nobody has yet shown that such texts existed, even though such an effort ought to be relatively easy, if, in fact, the plethora of such texts actually existed.

What makes the defensive position of some writers even more suspect is their chosen defense: "We provided a caveat that we should wait and see because we all know that Favre has a history of wavering."

That's a preposterous defense on numerous levels. Most notably, it is no defense, even if true, for not identifying the texts upon which one purportedly relied in breaking a story and, more damning, if, as is surely the case, Favre's history of wavering is well known, as that history clearly ought to caution greater care in the reporting of such stories. Finally, if the story is one of caution, the headlines and the lead-ins ought not to be about Favre's departure.

The truth of the matter upon revelation that Favre had not retired is that everyone who reported the story as fact is now embarrassed for having done so. That is as it should be. Rather than taking that frustration out on the reader/listener, however, a bit of introspection might be in order. For sooner than most likely dare to admit, even internet and radio journalism will survive or fail based on the credibility of those doing the reporting. If the most recent Favre story were the measuring stick, there would be a whole slew of new journalists finding jobs this week, and an equal number searching for jobs in new fields.

Up Next: Sage Looking for An Out. Plus, too many injuries?


Jon Marthaler said...

This is rare for me and this great blog, but I disagree with this post. Favre sending texts that suggested he was done for good is definitely a story. Moreover, not only did the reporters source those texts, Visanthe Shiancoe confirmed that they had been sent. Favre's attempt to play this off as an elaborate and unfunny Shiancoe practical joke is absurd.

vikes geek said...


Thanks for the comment.

I agree that this is a story. The issue is what the story is.

If original reports cited specific and verified texts from Favre to Shiancoe--something that I did not see or hear in the original reports--I am willing to concede that point. The larger issue to me is two-fold, however. First, before reporting this story, reporters should have reviewed the actual texts and followed-up with Favre. If Favre could not or would not confirm, the story had to be considered suspect and the leads to those stories should not have been that Favre was retiring. From my perspective, that's far beyond even yellow journalism.

Second, given that everyone covering this almost certainly understood Favre's history, there should have been great hesitance in even going with this story--at least as set forth. My sense, and perhaps I am alone, is that not only was there not caution, but caution was completely abandoned in the name of getting the scoop.

The real story, assuming even this story is accurate, would be that Favre was angling for a higher pay day for returning. That's not at all what any reporter suggested in their original report, however. Fleshing out the story, rather than leading with "Favre Done" and pitching stories--in headlines and in the opening lines of the story--on Favre's departure would have been the proper approach, in my opinion.

I understand the frustration of reporters who find themselves tied to higher standards of journalism in the face of an overwhelming number of blogs that are not necessarily bound by the same canons. I also appreciate the somewhat cut-throat nature of the business, particularly in the current cycle. But those who maintain the highest standards in journalism ultimately will profit when those searching for material on a subject decide that accuracy matters.

My impression is that nearly everyone who reported on the Favre text on day one put expediency over accuracy in this case. That's not a criminal offense, but it should be yet another reminder of the need for following up on sources, even if it means not being the first to report. This is particularly important when reporters such as you reasonably rely on the information of someone else who covers the team and is generally regarded as a credible source of information. A failure at the top of the chain immediately mushrooms.

The irony is that these types of events actually reinforce the value of established news outlets the likes of which sourced the Favre story.


Jon Marthaler said...

We may have to agree to disagree on this one.

First, let me clarify that Shiancoe told reporters that texts had been sent to some players, but he also specifically said that he had not received them. However, given that Judd Zulgad wrote that he had talked to multiple people who had received texts, and that Shiancoe confirmed that players had received texts, it would seem semi-ludicrous to believe Favre's denials.

From what I could tell, the story - both in the paper and online - was pitched as the following:
1) Favre sent text messages to Vikings personnel.
2) These messages said that Favre was planning to retire.
3) Is he really serious?

I don't think any of those facts are incorrect, though Favre later claimed that they were.

Adam said...

I have to side with Jon on this one. The facts were reported by the original writers of the story (Zulgad and Glazer) in a manner that was clear to me (after actually reading it) that Favre sent messages but it was cautioned in the next breath that it could all eb part of the song and dance.

The only person, in my book, that lied about the texts was Favre himself.

You say that none of the reporters reviewed the texts. What are your sources on that? If you have none, then you have just played the same game that you are so against.

And really, if Jim Kleinsasser texted teammates that he was hanging it up, would you be jumping all over the "yellow jouranilists" for not getting 100% foolproof evidence and be attacking their tactics? No. You'd say okay, the Saucer has retired. But in this case it was Favre, which means the media must of course be doing him wrong in some way.

Like Jon said, a rare disagreement with one of my favorite sites. Keep up the good work!

vikes geek said...


Thanks for the post.

As I said previously, it's fine to run the story and include the caveat. When, however, you sell the story--headline and opening stanzas--as accurately portraying what later in the story is far more innocuously cautioned against, that is improper. That's taking advantage of something that you do not yourself trust to be accurate to gain a competitive advantage. Whether Favre actually sent the texts or later lied about some part of the story is irrelevant when discussing how one ought to portray information one has obtained and how one ought to verify information--not just whether someone received a text.

I have yet to hear one reporter claim that they actually saw the text. Our local reporters were quite honest in stating that they did not see the text. But even had they seen the text, it is incumbent on them to follow-up the story. And if the requisite follow-up is with someone that they do not trust to be honest on the issue then, it seems to me, the entire story needs to be reconsidered with the disclaimer up front rather than buried.