I’m told…


That is Chris Broussard’s signature way of introducing whatever piece of gossip he’s about to pass along. Last night was an embarrassing one for Broussard, one of ESPN’s highest profile reporters. After having tweeted that Mark Cuban was frantically driving around Houston trying to locate DeAndre Jordan’s address, he was strongly rebuffed, first by Cuban’s brother and then by Cuban himself. Each assured Broussard that, whatever else was going, Mark Cuban knows exactly where Jordan lives.

Everyone makes mistakes. Broussard’s apparent one last night just happens to have been especially public.

What interests me more than the particular flub is the general practice of sports reporting as it has evolved in recent years. Everyone, including Broussard, Adam Shefter, Chris Mortensen, Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne to name a few, uses anonymous sources as a matter of routine.

In journalism, the debate about when anonymous sources should be used is an old one. Every major news organization has guidelines specifying the circumstances in which their use is appropriate and necessary. And every news organization clarifies when they should not be used.

This discussion in USA Today observes:

There’s also a general consensus that they should be used carefully, that every effort should be made to get material on the record, that blind cheap shots have no business seeing the light of day.

It also quotes the New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who has frequently criticized her paper when it inappropriately grants anonymity to sources:

“Some of the best and most important reporting is based on confidential sourcing,” she says. “In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most in-depth, worthwhile reporting relies on developing sources who may not be able to go on the record.”

“Anonymous quotes shouldn’t be used for wild speculation, for smearing someone, or in any unnecessary way,” she says. “And I would set a high bar for what’s deemed truly necessary to the story.”

These are not controversial stances among working journalists. They’re conventional wisdom (even if, in practice, news outlets frequently violate their own strictures in this area).

Why is this relevant to Broussard and Co.?

Look, we all know that, for the most part, sports “news” isn’t news the way Watergate was, or secret negotiations over trade deals, or the global financial crisis. It’s entertainment. But to the extent that ESPN and other sports outlets still promote their brand, at least in part, by insisting on their credentials as respectable news organizations, shouldn’t they be held to *some* standards? They refer to at least some of their paid employees as “reporters,” they traffic in “breaking news,” they quote “sources.” That is, they indulge in the trappings of standard news gathering and reporting entities.  Read Broussard’s twitter feed from yesterday. It’s exclusively a rehash of anonymous sources.  How do we have any idea what their access is and whether they’re credible?

To repeat, none of this is of larger consequence. Whether Mark Cuban was driving around frantically trying to find Jordan’s house, or sitting and stewing in a hotel room, perfectly aware of Jordan’s whereabouts but unable to talk to him is about as trivial as trivia gets. And I’m only picking on Broussard because his apparent mistake happens to be the talk of the moment. But ESPN’s larger pretenses – OTL aside – deserve some scrutiny. Most of what fills up their airwaves and digital spaces – and this is true for all the big sports media outlets – are just a sports version of TMZ. Look, I consume the stuff a lot, so I’m in no position to mock the interest in sports gossip programming. But that’s really what this is – a big old soap opera/reality show mashup, in a context that happens to be especially compelling to men. Even when Woj, or one of ESPN’s reporters get a story right, what are we usually talking about? That we’ve learned about a contract being signed, or a player being cut or traded four hours before we would have had we awaited the team’s own announcement?

Again, it’s all perfectly good entertainment. But let’s not pretend that it deserves some special pride of place in our media ecosystem. When some of the titans of the old guard, like the Wilbons of the world, complain about social media, declining standards and so on, isn’t this part of what they’re doing – making a special pleading for the place of “real” journalism in the sports world? In other words, insisting on a bright line between “serious” reporting on the one hand and irresponsible rumor-mongering on the other that, in reality, is so faint as to barely register?



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