The depressing state of our sports news

ANDY BULL, on Guardian Unlimited, has published a damning critique of the state of the 24/7 sports news culture. The arguments are not new – Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News is cited in the piece as highlighting many of the problems on the news and features desks, too. But take a look at some of the issues raised and post your opinion in the Comment box below

With most sports news stories, the first quotation mark stops my mind in its tracks. Take this story in front of me now, from a stale old broadsheet of a month or two back:

“Fulham are preparing to move Roy Hodgson upstairs and make John Collins their fourth manager in a year.”

So reads the first line. The first thought prompted by digging up an old story like this is a reminder that the “news” that each day is presented as incontrovertible fact is actually nothing of the sort.

It’s just a neat example of the style of news writing that has become depressingly prevalent: the template that says an opening paragraph must encapsulate the story, and from there on the word count must justify itself through quotation from a player, manager or in fact anyone with any kind of vague official relation to the story.

Quotations command space, but rarely interest. If it wasn’t enough to know that a player was injured, we now also have to know that the manager and a selection of former players think he is a “huge loss to the side”, and we will be told all of this in print, on the radio and 24 hours a day by Sky Sports News. These quotes come in three forms: the interesting, the mundane and the untrue. The volume of lineage and airtime spent relaying other peoples’ words means that the majority fall into the last two categories.

The mundane may have a grim necessity. There probably are people who really do want to know, again and again, that Frank Lampard was “delighted to get his goal” and that Andrew Flintoff is still “not taking his England place for granted”. It is the untrue category that is more disturbing. This falsity isn’t just the gross kind drip-fed into the media by savvy agents and the like (and perpetuated by bad journalists and, more so, their employers) about players being “committed” to their club; or “hankering after a move abroad”; or a manager having the “full backing of his board”. There’s plenty of that going on, but the lies also operate at a far more base level. I long for the day when a player says:

“Frankly Garth, I couldn’t give a toss about the fact that we lost, because I scored two goals.”

Why is a conversation laced with cliché and double-speak supposed to become interesting simply because one of the participants is a sportsperson?

The overreliance on quotation is just one symptom of an ailing media that was so brilliantly described by Nick Davies in his recent book Flat Earth News. I say described, rather than exposed, because the sickness of the media and its processes is common knowledge. Even the most credulous reader can sense that behind that story about an offer from a foreign club is a player after more money from his employer. When ancient stories about Chelsea’s desire to sign Steven Gerrard pop up again days before a Champions League semi-final against Liverpool, you don’t need to be a cynic to be sceptical.

There is a wide acceptance of decrepit practice in this business: match reports that are three-quarters finished before kick-off; collective tinkering with the truth (“did anyone see that wicket? No? Missed a straight one did he? Thought so”); over-dependence on public relations companies to provide interview opportunities; the carving up of quotations and stories so that the “news” can be spun out over the week; and of course that tendency, just because it is easy, to slap quotes all over your copy like pollyfilla.

These practices, which I, like everyone, have been guilty of at times, stem from a disease diagnosed long before Nick Davies addressed it. Except in the very occasional case (journalism, like every profession, has its share of useless bastards) this situation is the product of a culture rather than any individuals. In fact I’d pin the blame on a condition coined by the sometime football reporter JB Priestley during his travels across 1950s Texas: admass. This, I hope, will be a quotation worth reading:

“Admass. This is my name for the whole system of an increasing productivity, plus inflation, plus a rising standard of living, plus high-pressure advertising and salesmanship, plus mass communications, plus cultural democracy and the creation of the mass mind, the mass man. It is all a swindle, you have to be half-witted or half-drunk to endure it.”

It is the culture of admass production that made journalism so vulnerable to decrepit practices: Sky is now obliged to fill 24 hours of each day with news, each newspaper has to fill its 12 pages and perhaps a supplement too, Five Live needs more than 50 hours of sports programming every week. Compelled to fill such volumes of space, the stories are overstretched, and over-exposed.

Which doesn’t mean that, in its way, admass production hasn’t improved other aspects of sports journalism. So much fascinating, absorbing, intelligent writing has blossomed because of that increased space. It is the sports news culture that grates, rather than the interviews, match reports and features. And there is a clear difference to be drawn between the work of, to pick one example from many, the likes of an intelligent and skilled newshound like David Conn and the majority of stories, ripped from agency copy and news wires, that fill so much of the space that admass has made.

The bulk of sports news is quotation, and the bulk of quotation is chronically dull. Dull and omnipresent. Have we lost all judgement of what is actually worth reporting? Or listening to? Arsène Wenger denies seeing a foul, Pietersen commits himself to England again.

What were we expecting them to say?

Andy Bull was highly commended in two categories at the 2007 SJA Sports Journalism Awards in March. To read his article in full, click here.

Post your thoughts and observations on the issues raised here in the Comment box below

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