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Paradigm Repair and the Hero Myth in Sports Journalism

When American cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 that he won his record-breaking seven Tour de France titles with the help of performance enhancing drugs, his confession came after years of denials. During those years, some American sports journalists, like Pulitzer Prize winner and Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, stood up for Armstrong. “The country has a right to at least one [hero],” Bissinger said in a 2012 The Daily Beast column. “Armstrong embodies all the attributes, his dominance in the sport of cycling, his successful battle against testicular cancer, the work of his foundation.”

Many American sports journalists composed narratives in the late 1990s that centered on Armstrong’s humble beginnings, battle with cancer, and comeback career. This “formula” for structuring a narrative is called a hero myth. This myth is one of several myths news content creators use, often unknowingly, to organize ideas and to build tight, coherent stories. American sports journalism in particular is overflowing with hero narratives.

A problem with creating and/or perpetuating a hero myth, though, is that sports journalists need to look past, or at least minimize, athletes’ and coaches’ vices. To do this is the antithesis of objectivity. Objectivity is a traditional hallmark of American journalism in which journalists are to use objective, as opposed to subjective, methods for interpreting events and messages around them.

So what happens when this hero myth collapses? There is a whole body of research that has examined what we call paradigm repair. Paradigm repair, in this context, is when journalists demonstrate that the written and unwritten rules of the field really are reliable, but because of a particular reason or person, the paradigm’s rules were violated. When journalists engage in paradigm repair, they affirm the value of professional norms and distance themselves from the rogue journalist.. For example, the now-late White House correspondent Helen Thomas made anti-Semitic remarks in a 2010 interview with New York rabbi David Nesenoff. Thomas was a long-time correspondent, covering the administrations of 10 U.S. presidents and long-since heralded by her colleagues. Her comments in the 2010 interview, though, broke journalism’s paradigm as an objective, ethical media system. In their 2013 study, Drs. Elizabeth Blanks Hindman and Ryan J. Thomas found that members of the media singled out Thomas as unrepresentative of the field, suggesting her career should end and her remarks were caused by senility, among other things.

In "Paradigm Repair and the Hero Myth in Sports Journalism: An Analysis of Lance Armstrong Coverage," a chapter in, Case Studies in Sport Communication: You Make the Call, I explain why the connection between the hero myth and paradigm repair matters. Through the lens of Armstrong media coverage, I show how sports journalists may engage in paradigm repair differently than their “news” counterparts, and what some potential ramifications of this is. I conducted a two-part study: First, assessing how sports journalists engaged in paradigm repair when Armstrong confessed to doping. I did this by collecting American sports journalists’ columns from Oct. 9, 2012, when the United States Anti-Doping Agency released its report on Armstrong’s history of doping, to Jan. 31, 2013, the month following Armstrong’s confession to Oprah. Second, to determine the relationship between sports journalists’ use of the hero myth (or lack thereof) and how they engaged in paradigm repair when Armstrong confessed. I did this by examining everything the sports journalists in the above sample wrote about Armstrong between Jan. 1, 1999, the year Armstrong won his first Tour de France title, and Dec. 31, 2010, Armstrong’s final year in the Tour.

My findings? A hero narrative was present in 44 of the 109 articles (40.4% of sample), or from 15 of the 22 sports journalists (68.2%). Some examples of this would be describing Armstrong with adjectives like “hero,” “virtual saint,” “godlike,” or “America’s greatest untarnished sports icon.” Yet, in the month after Armstrong’s confession, none of the authors who helped create Armstrong’s hero narrative suggested paradigm changes or specific routines sports journalists could or should do differently to avoid deception in the future. Sports journalists’ responses to Armstrong’s confession fell into at least one of four categories, the most common being Armstrong’s poor character and disingenuous apology. Whereas past research suggests journalists will isolate the colleague who erred (e.g., Helen Thomas) as the “rogue,” make them a scapegoat, and distance themselves from him or her, sports journalists in my study painted Armstrong as the rogue. The onus was on dysfunctional athletes, and nothing in my sample suggested contemplation of potential ways sports journalism routines and practices could change in order to avoid similar subterfuge in the future.

There was a lot more to it. This blog post is my attempt to summarize some of the big ideas. For more information, have a look at the book, available through Routledge.

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