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Hero shots: The 'hero myth' as a visual frame in sports journalism

In sports journalism, the term “hero shot” refers to a camera technique intended to capture a key play or happenstance. This may be taking a picture or shooting the moment a basketball player sinks a game-winning three-pointer or a pitcher throws the final strikeout of a game. It can also document a notable shift in momentum, such as a basketball player scoring a basket that tied the game and forced an overtime. Sometimes used interchangeably with “iso” cam, it can also capture not the hero of the match necessarily, but the hero of the moment. Depending upon how many cameras are used for a live broadcast, there may be 10 to 15 hero shots in a game. Some shots will be more memorable than others, and depending upon the context, such a hero shot could be published or aired repeatedly, for years to come. As Dr. Barbie Zelizer described in Framing Public Memory (2004), such visuals play a role in our collective sports memory, establishing and maintaining shared knowledge from an earlier time.

When Dr. Ali Forbes, a then-doctoral student in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and I began working on a research project together, we were surprised by the dearth of sports journalism research devoted to hero shots. Even when we found mention of the term in industry articles and blogs, it was not explained. It was as if the reader was expected to already know what the term meant and why it was important.

That part wasn’t necessarily surprising. Sport journalism practice is loaded with unwritten rules. Many of the routines sports journalists adopt for interviewing, gathering information, and organizing content are, as Dr. Daniel Berkowitz said in a 2000 Journalism article, “learned informally on the job through socialization in a news media organization – ‘by osmosis’ – but are rarely documented or taught explicitly” (p. 126). An element of this training is learning to interpret and to organize information quickly, and to do it in a narrative that makes sense to the audience. This is often done through myths.

When I say “myths,” I don’t mean a refuted belief or fantastical supernatural story. Myths in journalism practice are more like frameworks, or as Dr. Jack Lule put it in Daily News, Eternal Stories (2001), “patterns, images, motifs and characters, taken from and shaped by the shared experiences of human life, that have helped structure and shape stories across cultures and eras” (p. 15). Myths are so common in U.S. news, Lule argued that journalists frame people and events in one of seven myths: the hero, the victim, the scapegoat, the good mother, the trickster, the other world, or the flood.

The hero myth in general has changed over time, but it’s important because of what it says about a civilization’s culture and values. For example, hero mythology devoted to Shulgi of Ur, a king of the Neo-Sumerian Empire (ca. 2094 – 2046 BCE), praised Shulgi’s “complete mastery of every kind of weapon,” strength to kill “a lion on the steppe, thus single-handedly making the steppe safe for shepherds and flocks,” and hepatoscopy abilities that made even his expert oracles “look on in wonder,” according to Dr. Jacob Klein in a 1995 Civilizations of the Ancient Near East analysis. Dr. Seth Schein penned in The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad (1984, p. 58) that a hero is a “warrior who lives and dies in the pursuit of honor” and exhibits their heroism through “the brilliancy and efficiency with which they kill.” In his 1949 work of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell described a hero as someone who travels from the common world to a supernatural one, encounters fantastic forces and obstacles, and wins.

The endurance of the hero myth hails from a larger psychological need for a hero, someone who “can alter events and overcome threats to society and change history,” Dr. Deborah Tudor argued in Hollywood’s Vision of Team Sports (2014, p. 4). This desire derives from social and psychological needs, such as “hopelessness against the inevitability of disasters… [and] an escape from personal and political responsibility for shaping or participating in society.”

The hero myth became prominent in American sports journalism specifically because sports writing, as developed during the Gilded Age (1870 to 1900), articulated American cultural values, such as equality, freedom, ambition, success, and independence (for examples, see Dr. Keith Parry’s 2021 Sport in Society article, the late Dr. Nick Trujillo and Leah R. Ekdom’s 1985 Critical Studies in Mass Communication article and Dr. Milton Rokeach’s 1973 The Nature of Human Values). By writing about athletes and coaches through the lens of these values, sports journalists legitimized the industry. As Dr. Amber Roessner illustrated in Inventing Baseball Heroes: Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and the Sporting Press in America (2014), a unique style of writing known as “gee whiz” reporting, which created, inflated, and mythicized baseball players as heroes, emerged during this time. (This differed from the more skeptical “ah nuts” tradition, which downplayed athletic success.) Dr. Lawrence Wenner concluded in The Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Sport (2020, p. 225) that American sports “stars” have become “increasingly dominant as a heroic class and are even more than twice as likely to be named as heroes than entertainers or heads of states.”

I examined hero mythology in a 2019 Journal of Sports Media study, through the lens of text-based sports media coverage of former American cyclist Lance Armstrong. In that analysis (which I blogged about here), I found that sports journalists often depicted Armstrong through a formulaic American sports hero narrative: Descriptions of his humble birth to a teenage mother, his rise as a successful triathlete and cyclist, his Stage 4 cancer diagnosis when he was 25 years old, and his triumphant return to professional cycling, which included a record seven consecutive Tour de France victories from 1999 to 2005. By surviving and thriving, he became the embodiment of a larger revered social value, his story resonating with people beyond the cycling community.

When sports journalists construct these hero myths, they are framing. Numerous scholars have examined journalism practice’s influence on visual framing, such as the use and implications of action photos over passive photos, and camera angles to denote power and weakness (for examples, see Arpan et al. (2006); Detenber et al. (2007); Gitlin (1980); McLeod & Detenber (1999); and Messaris & Abraham (2001)). Dr. Forbes and I focused on structural features, such as camera angles and distances, and what these manipulations convey to the audience. We used Brooklyn College’s film department film glossary to examine 927 individual shots of Armstrong, aired on American television networks through their distance, angle, content, means, and heroism, as adapted from my 2019 study.

Out of the 927 total shots of Armstrong, 437 (or 47.24% of total sample) were hero shots. Most footage included low-angle shots, looking slightly upward at Armstrong to denote an elevated status. Long-shots were also common, giving a larger context for his victory (e.g., Tour de France finish line). Something of note, though, was how rarely Armstrong was the only person in a hero shot. Most included at least three people, such as opponents or teammates surrounding him.

Lance Armstrong reacts as he crosses the finish line to win the 17th stage of the Tour de France July 22, 2004. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)
Lance Armstrong reacts as he crosses the finish line to win the 17th stage of the Tour de France July 22, 2004. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

The full analysis and results were published July 16 in Electronic News. Our findings are striking because of what occurred and became public knowledge after Armstrong’s hero shots were captured.

He retired after the 2005 Tour de France win. He then returned, finishing third and 23rd in the 2009 and 2010 Tour de France races, respectively. He retired again in 2011. After the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped Armstrong of his titles, Nike, among other companies, ended multi-million-dollar contracts with him. Armstrong confessed to Oprah in a January 2013 televised interview that, despite years of denials – and support from American sports journalists – he had been doping all along.

And when these developments occurred as breaking news, many sports media outlets would have turned to file footage of Armstrong to use in their news packages. If file footage largely consisted of hero shots, then it would be hero shots accompanying audio about doping and title stripping, for example. The visual would be incongruent with the journalist’s accompanying voiceover.

That is a big deal in media research because audiences are more likely to believe what they see than what they read or hear, and when processed simultaneously, visual messages override other messages (for examples, see Arpan et al. (2006); De Silva et al. (1997); Gibson & Zillmann (2000); Krauss et al. (1981); Noller (1985); Paletz & Guthrie (1987); Posner, Nissen, & Klein (1976); and Zillmann, Knobloch, & Yu, (2001)).

Whether you’re in the classroom, already working as a sports journalist, or teaching visual communication, it's important to shoot a wide range of visuals that go beyond an athlete’s contemporary mainstream narrative. Having access to a wider range of shots would give stations visuals that are more suitable for the news intended to be reported.

As for my co-author, seeing this research published is also special because, as I stated earlier, we began this while she was a student, and now she is an assistant professor at Texas State University. She said she learned a lot during that time period.

“It’s also nice to pair what generally feels like two separate worlds, my practical production skills and jobs with my research,” Dr. Forbes said in an email. “Usually, those two things don’t overlap much, so I am thankful for an opportunity to see how I can leverage one in support of the other.”


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