Rowe off course on sport journalism

David LowdenDavid Lowden

A continuing conversation on the role of sports journalists.



Don't blame sports journalists for missing corruption scandal - Dave Lowden, La Trobe University. The Conversation, 11 February 2013. 
On scandal after scandal, sport journalists drop the ball - Professor David Rowe, University of Western Sydney. The Conversation, 21 February 2013.

The title of Professor David Rowe’s recent article that “scandal after scandal sport journalists drop the ball” is a great headline. It does its job and attracts attention but nowhere in the article was there a list of scandals where journalists had dropped the ball or even evidence to support the contention of the profession’s “inglorious past” unless a humorous skit from Clarke and Dawe counts.

If sport journalists have dropped the ball by not publishing links between athletes and organised crime, the presumably so too have all the police reporters and investigative journalists around the country. The fact is the ACC operated in secret – go figure – for more than twelve months. It is illegal for anyone to even confirm they were interviewed by the ACC.

The view that if sport journalists just tried a bit harder and dug a bit deeper, they could have uncovered the story is flawed. For that to have happened, either someone from the ACC would have to break the law or those with links to organised crime for the purposes of taking performance-enhancing drugs or match fixing – both that would bring shame and lengthy bans from the sport - would have had to divulge that information to a journalist.

Professor Rowe cites the News of the World sting on a supposed ‘spot-fixing’ intermediary as an example of ‘provocative, challenging and investigative’ sport journalism. Ed Hawkins, in his book, Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy, highlights what a tawdry episode of journalism this was. Is Rowe suggesting that journalists should use under-handed tactics such as entrapment or lying as a means of acquiring information?

It’s not complacency or a dereliction of duty, as Rowe suggests it borders on, for journalists to resist the urge to blithely report rumours without substantiating them. Now of course it happens, but that’s not the point. The point is that many sports journalists do have their ear to the ground but hearing it and being able to report it are two different things.

The so-called ‘tanking’ saga in the AFL is a prime example. For several years there had been widespread belief in the community that it takes place (‘it’ being that those in control of teams did things that made it more likely their team would lose and thereby gain access to a earlier pick in the draft). Many questions were asked of AFL administrators and its participants. No one would admit that it occurred until Tony Liberatore accused Carlton, of tanking in a television interview for Channel 9’s The Footy Show in 2008: “Winning wasn’t the be all and end all,” Liberatore said.

It was sport journalists that first accused – in print – Lance Armstrong of taking performance enhancing drugs. David Walsh was one of the first and Armstrong sued his employer, The Sunday Times. The paper made an out-of-court settlement. It took years for cycling administrators to listen and for Walsh to have his reputation restored (he was named British Journalist of the Year last December).

It is true that too many other cycling journalists turned a blind eye, preferring instead to ingratiate themselves with those that hand out the accreditation for one of sports journalism’s dream assignments. It is also true that Armstrong said on the record, time and time again – including once under oath – that he did not take performance-enhancing drugs.

Rowe asks a legitimate question, are sport journalists part of the fourth estate or simply a fan club? Yes they are part of the fourth estate but sports journalism is also about results, match reports, profiles, features and dare I say it, even entertainment. It is true that some sport journalists are guilty of being fans first and journos second - and I said so in my first article – but does the profession deserve to be condemned because of them?

How the profession is perceived, how it operates and who the exponents are, is important but largely irrelevant in terms of whether or not sport journalists ‘dropped the ball’ in criminal matters that happen to involve a sports person.

My article was about the ACC report but I used the betting scandal involving Damian Oliver as an example of how covert criminal investigations are unlikely to be broken by a sport journalist. I never said they shouldn’t try but there is a practical reality that should not be regarded as taking a ‘passive stance’. The Oliver story came to light because he was picked up on phone taps in a murder investigation.

The racing writer does not have the links to police that other journalists do. The Age investigative team broke that story precisely because they do have those links with police sources. Journalism as a profession did its job and uncovered the truth. Not every story involving a sports person will be broken by a sports journalist.

David Lowden is a senior lecturer in sports journalism at La Trobe University.