American sports journalists: Boosters, watchdogs, or both?

When the first American sports magazines debuted in the 1820s, they were considered vulgar among a large portion of the American reading public. In fact, many sports journalists used pseudonyms. But in the mid-19th century, a variety of events happened that changed Americans’ relationship with sport: The first great wave of immigration and industrialization, increased literacy rates, decreased printing costs, and increased urbanization and leisure time. Sports’ popularity grew as a result of media attention, and newspapers generated circulation and advertising sales because of sports coverage.

Today, sports journalists cover topics their predecessors wouldn't have touched. Some sports journalists I’ve talked to consider themselves serious journalists who just-so-happened to cover sports. Others say they see themselves as creators of puff pieces, destined for high school athletes’ scrapbooks. These diverse philosophies led me to wonder: What do modern, American sports journalists perceive their roles to be?

I looked at past studies that examined journalists' roles. David Weaver and his colleagues at Indiana University have conducted a national study of journalists each decade since 1982. They have found that journalists tend to see themselves as fulfilling at least one of four roles: Interpreters, disseminators, adversaries (e.g., embracing a “watchdog” role), and/or populist mobilizers (e.g., media’s opportunity to help people and to influence public affairs).

A downfall of these studies, though, is that they are broad. They don't tease out how different types of journalists, like copy editors, writers, or sports journalists, perceive their particular roles.

In my study, published this month in The Journal of Emerging Sport Studies, I used Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, and Wilhoit’s 2007 measure of journalists’ role perception and surveyed 116 American sports journalists working for daily, weekly, and biweekly newspapers throughout the United States.

What I found surprised me. Sports journalists in my sample determined their roles to be populist mobilizers and adversaries – the adversarial function being the stronger, more unified role. They felt strongly that they should be skeptical of coaches, athletic directors, and other administrators’ statements, and to investigate.

This is intriguing, considering sports journalists are not historically presumed to be the investigative, adversarial types. They have earned unflattering monikers, like being boosters, accepting freebies, and being the “toy department” of the newsroom. As I said earlier, much of this hails from the intertwined relationship sports journalists historically had with the sports organizations they covered. But do my results suggest this relationship has changed?

One thing my study didn’t examine, and should be considered, was how other roles influence content creation. For example, when The Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minnesota) reported on academic fraud within the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program (and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for it), then-Pioneer Press sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz said he wondered if the story would have been broken if the staffers working on the piece had been “long-timers.” According to Geneva Overholser’s Case Study: Minnesota’s Basketball Cheating Scandal, George Dohrmann, a then-relatively recent arrival in the Twin Cities, pursued the story particularly because he was not a long-time resident. In fact, Dohrmann and Garcia-Ruiz said they expected an “unusually high level of scrutiny” from the sports writing community – to the extent that they thought that community would turn on them if their story was not “Sid-proof.” (The moniker is a reference to long-time Star Tribune (Minneapolis) columnist Sid Hartman, who works for the competing newspaper and was presumed to be critical of the then-upcoming story.)

The point is, no matter how seriously a sports journalist takes their role – investigative or otherwise – they still have competing roles that will influence how they do their job and what resources they will (or will not) have access to, depending upon which role they prioritize. They have relationships with editors, coworkers, community members, and family members that may shape what a sports journalist perceives to be the most important role at any given time.

This role conflict matters, and is underexplored in sports journalism research. It is something I hope to continue to study and to help sports journalism students grapple with before they enter the field – as opposed to a “trial by fire,” which unfortunately, is the experience of many sports journalists.