How Custom Jewelry Sales are Like Local Sports Journalism

How is a sports journalist like a custom jewelry designer?

That’s not a trick question; it is something I started thinking about today while reading this Washington Post story, as my father-in-law called just then to tell my husband about his new custom-designed jewelry website.

The Post story, “The Redskins’ Media Offensive: A Blitz of Team-Paid Programming Raises Some Flags About Objectivity,” by Paul Farhi, begins:

“Redskins Generation,” on WUSA, Channel 9, looks a lot like any other sports-feature program. It has highlight clips of the team’s games, interviews with players and coaches and amusing features about just about everything related to the Redskins.The weekly show, however, has an unusual pedigree. Although the program airs on Channel 9, the station has no hand in its production or content. “Redskins Generation” is owned and produced entirely by the Redskins. The team pays the station a fee to air the show during the football season. In the strictest sense, “Redskins Generation” isn’t a program at all, but a program-length commercial designed to tout the team.

The show is one of several Redskins-backed radio and TV programs that have dotted the local airwaves this season…

I’m all in favor of saying sponsored programming should be labeled as such (as these programs appear to be), but when it comes to sports, let’s not get over-serious about “journalistic integrity.” Let’s face it, sports coverage is not objective, and no one thinks it is.Newspapers, TV, radio etc. in the various NFL, MLB, NHL and other sports’ home markets more-or-less openly root for the team. The pretense of objectivity is slim to non-existent. Objectivity would take the fun out.

Lest there be a mistake, let me be clear that I’m not being critical of the news media on this point. The Washington Post is a for-profit company, most of the readers in its local market root for the Redskins if they follow football at all, therefore, the Washington Post boosts the Redskins. The rest of the local media does, too.

The Post article continues:

Although the [TV] programs [sponsored by the Redskins] ensure visibility and a generally sunny view for the Redskins no matter how well the team is faring, the shows raise a journalistic question: Can local broadcasters fairly report on the Redskins when they’re part of what is essentially a team-sponsored promotional exercise?Although the programs do not ignore obvious bad news, they tend to feature upbeat — and at times adulatory — segments about the team…

…Andy Pollin, WTEM’s program director, said he wrestled with the journalistic ethics when he was the host of “Redskins Game Day” on Channel 5 during the 2000 and 2001 seasons (he’s no longer associated with the program). “In the back of my mind,” Pollin said, “there was always someone saying, ‘Don’t blast Dan Snyder if you want to keep this nice little paycheck you’re getting [from the team] every week.’ ”

But station executives defend the journalistic integrity of the arrangement, saying the team doesn’t dictate show content….

The Redskins don’t get bucketloads of media attention from the “objective” local sports journalists because 1) it is objectively more important for the news outlet to devote ink (or airtime) to the Redskins than to other competing stories, or 2) the Redskins are objectively more worthy of coverage than any other team in the NFL. (Obviously false, as the Steelers are the most worthy.)The Redskins get news coverage here in DC because the local consumers of news media want this coverage, and they want it reasonably enthusiastic and they want it biased toward the Redskins. They don’t want it to be objective, not because they don’t believe in “journalistic integrity,” but because sports is supposed to be about fun.

(It’s not like people decide who to vote for based on the way some sportswriter describes a fourth quarter Hail Mary.)

The talk of fun leads me back to my jewelry analogy. Jewelry is like sports in that its consumers (in the economic rather than gastronomic sense) don’t need it; they enjoy it. They don’t worry if a jewelry designer “objectively” decided that a yellow rock would look best in a certain setting or if he put a yellow rock in the setting because the customer asked for a yellow rock. The bottom line is that the customer wanted a yellow rock, and the jewelry designer was willing to provide one. There would be no lack of “designer integrity” if the designer genuinely preferred a blue rock, but didn’t say so.

The same holds for sports coverage. The desire for pro-Redskins rah-rah coverage created a market for such coverage, which is being supplied by the local sports press. This is no different than a market for yellow rocks being supplied by people who sell yellow rocks. Some of the local sports journalists undoubtedly like the Steelers more than the Redskins (one assumes this must be so), but the market calls for Redskins coverage, so that is what they supply — just the way a jewelry designer who likes blue rocks best still sells yellow rocks to the customers who prefer them.

Sometimes journalists take themselves a little too seriously. “Journalistic integrity” doesn’t have to mean giving the consumer what you think they should have rather than what they want, particularly when everyone involved in the transaction knows professional sports exist exclusively for fun and profit.

P.S. As I wrote this story I watched the local NBC affiliate’s 11 PM news broadcast’s coverage of the Redskins playoff loss today. One sports reporter called the loss “disappointing” while another spoke of “hope” for a better Redskins performance next year. Objective? Obviously not. But neither was it inappropriate.

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