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The changing role of the media in North American sports

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As the world spins to a standstill in Toronto about things that players said or didn't say, do or didn't do maybe the real evaluation should be on the role of the media in forming opinions on players.

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When Phil Kessel said that Dion Phaneuf was unfairly criticized for his play and how he conducted himself off the ice, many people agreed because evaluation of Phaneuf's job should be based off of on-ice play, not off-ice personality. Many fans were up in arms that the media was taking exception to Kessel's comments because pockets of the media's reaction showed that the media held biases against players for inane reasons. Reasons like not talking to the press regularly or not putting up with bad questions/opinions. Kessel snapped, but the world has evolved since 1917 and the media needs to continue to change in evolve with the way that news is received and viewed by the general fan.

This does not mean that players should be exempt from criticism, in fact the public nature of their job opens them up to criticism. What needs to be balanced is where the criticism for their play ends and where the criticism for their personality begins. If someone is willing to speak after a rough game, that does not make them a leader. It makes them someone who is willing to talk to the media no matter what. Some of them may have realized that willingly speaking to the media at every opportunity means that they are shielded from the constant criticism that stems from not talking. Quiet people can still be great leaders when the spotlight is off and the media is gone.

This past summer the Montreal Canadiens traded defenceman Josh Gorges. While reflecting on the trade, the managing editor of LNH.com and Montreal's NHL.com correspondent Arpon Basu mentioned how Gorges made his job easier and therefore he unwittingly let Gorges off easier when Gorges made mistakes. There was an inherent bias in his reporting, but it was unintentional and completely understandable because Gorges made his life easier. If someone is easy to work with, you are more likely to let them off the hook when things go wrong. This does not account for introverted players or for those who are EAL (English as Another Language).

Even if a player is willing to talk to the media no matter the situation, they will rarely say anything of value. The game story is usually written and the quotes are added after the fact. Comments from players or coaches do not change the message that a writer has decided to convey before talking to them. The reliance on comments from players; the uncomfortable dance that is performed every night in the post-game scrum is not needed to write a good story. The story is still there out on the ice. The dance has already happened. The curtain has been closed. Yet athletes are asked to perform more. They are asked to talk to people they do not really know about their job, even after abject failures. They do this night in and night out with little relief. If their body language is wrong or if they are short with their words, they are called out. There are outside factors not always taken into consideration by members of the media; player personality is a major one. The expectation is that everyone will always be on whether they are an extrovert or an introvert.

Introverts are not people who like to be alone all the time. They tend to need breaks from people and sometimes need their space, but they are people who can be in crowds for long periods of time. There is an idea that players should be unintentionally punished for having personality traits that make it harder on them to be around large groups. If the bias is acknowledged than it can be worked around and understood. It allows for readers to read between the lines and understand why the player is talked about in a certain way. It allows for the narrative to be upfront, rather than hidden and open for interpretation.

This does not mean that bias should be commonly practiced. If a bias is present is should be out in the open and acknowledged, but not used as a crutch when the player is struggling. Having a bias for a player based on how they conduct themselves with the media seems unprofessional. Admitting that there is a bias there allows for cognizant reporting and reading, letting readers decide if a piece is biased and the reporter to try to check themselves while they are reporting on the team. Bias is a problem, but acknowledging it and addressing it is a key to working around it as a it can become a self-check. Everyone can begin to check their biases and writing will be better.

Whether we like it or not, the reality is most people form opinions on players based on the coverage of that player from mainstream media. If a majority of the media is overly harsh or has unrealistic expectations of a player, most fans will as well. The added expectation of full media relations for someone who has no real reason to be nice to someone except that the people they are forced to talk to controls the narrative that the fans get, even if that narrative is off-base or poorly supported. Biases are exposed in narratives that a built through media interactions. The initial intention of the press was to inform the public of events that they would not know about otherwise. Before games were televised fans would rely on game stories to tell them what happened, that need is gone now and the post-game quotes do not help tell the story about the game that happened.

This is where we should backtrack and look at the original role of the press once again. The role of the press was born out of the Estates of the Realm from the the French Revolution. For those who are familiar with the French Revolution, it started when the Third Estate felt left out of the democratic process and their solution was to overthrow the government. The Fourth Estate (the media) was established to inform the masses about what the government was doing. The Fourth Estate was vital in sustaining a democratic society, except the role of the Fourth Estate has changed as time has gone on. No longer are reporters the only source of news for the members of the Third Estate. As the media has evolved, the mode of which the news is consumed has changed as well. What has not changed is the way that mainstream media views itself as the carrier of news.

As time has gone on, the role of the press itself has evolved from being the sole bearer of news. Now news agencies and papers are only one in an every growing field of multimedia carriers of news. This has changed the media landscape for the better, but has led to the need for adjustments from mainstream media when dealing with those other forms of media. There was a podcast done with Jack Shafer and he talked about the media as an entity. He noted that with the emergence of blogging as an alternative source means that the Fourth Estate has been opened to the entire population as opposed to being for the privileged few who were professional journalists. Instead of showing contempt for the new media that has emerged, Shafer sees it as challenge to remain at the top of his game and to use his resources in a way that adds to the conversation versus being at war with bloggers who can bring new and fresh perspectives to the conversation. Accepting all forms of media as legitimate is one way that more information will be accessed and understood.

The gulf between blogger and mainstream media is ever narrowing. There are bloggers who hold access and ones who do better work than those with access. Players no longer need the media to convey their message to fans. Social media is there for that. All media holds influence over opinions. Instead of relying on the same canned responses from players and coaches after games, more thought could be put into why the result happened. More time could be put into figuring out what narrative is a tired old wet cloth and what narrative holds true.

Phil Kessel has a right to be annoyed with the media. Fans do as well. But the reason why the media exists in its current form is a symptom of a culture that demands the instant take on an event. There are hits to be had and the first site on the news du jour will get a majority of those hits. Those hits are valuable even if the news is wrong or blown out of proportion. The money drives the writing and the clicks drive the writing and yet bad writing tends to draw more eyes than good writing. Good reporting is rarely noticed because everyone is too interested in the car accident happening somewhere else. Reward the writers who manage to write interesting pieces that analyze hockey, with or without quotes. Ignore those who only write to generate clicks, no matter how off-base their take is. The media controls the message and it has since the media became an entity. The need for good media will never change; the need for bad media was never there.