Media Coverage Of Red Sox Collapse a Teaching Moment for Students

Red  Sox fans in New England are finally starting to relax a bit as stories on the circumstances of the team’s historic collapse are beginning to find themselves off the front page.  The three week deluge of coverage has become a fascinating study on how the media of today handles the distribution of information that, under normal circumstances, might not make news.  And journalism schools across the country are taking notice.

“We’ve had real spirited discussions about how you cover a story.” says Frank Shorr, Senior Lecturer, Journalism and Director of the Sports Institute at Boston University.

When the Red Sox ended the season by blowing a nine game wild card lead in September, the local media began to search for reasons behind the colossal breakdown.  It soon became apparent that they were going to look at the events of the final month by delving into what happened to the club on and off the field.

It began with references by John Tomase of the Boston Herald and Gordon Edes of ESPN that pitchers Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Jon Lester were seen drinking beer in the clubhouse during games in which they did not pitch.  A week later the firestorm erupted with a report by Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe that expanded upon the beer drinking in the clubhouse to include personal issues possibly affecting Manager Terry Francona and general disinterest on the part of some members of the club.

“Bob’s original article was terrific.” Shorr says,  “What has happened next was to be expected.  I’m sure there were conversations in newsrooms of, ‘How come we didn’t have this.’  Then you are charged with finding something new.”

Shorr says much has been made in the classroom on Hohler’s use of unnamed sources.  He tells students that it’s okay to use anonymous sources, as long as you are confident that the information provided by those sources is accurate.

“You just have to be safe, you just have to be confident.  If you are comfortable in what you’re writing that’s all you need to be concerned with.”

Many of Shorr’s students have never been in a locker room.  He says as part of the real-life reporting experiences shared with students include the importance of cultivating, and sometimes protecting, reliable sources.

“Bob could not have told his story if he sourced out all his information. Nobody can.” said Shorr, “You never know when you’re gonna need to call a player to get information.  I think (the students) understand that.”

The coverage of the Red Sox’ demise has become so competitive that members of the media have begun criticizing each other as to what should, and should not, be published.  Those discussions are also taking place in Shorr’s classes.

“The sports journalism culture of today is focused on what is considered opinion journalism.  And that everyone has an opinion and that’s what you put out there there.  But when you are a reporter on a daily basis and you are face to face with your subjects, it’s not that easy”

Students, like many other fans, have questioned why the disarray in the Red Sox clubhouse wasn’t unearthed earlier in the season, since many beat reporters were aware of those issues for some time.  Shorr says people who cover the team on a day-to-day basis often balance the need to keep things quiet with the need to protect access to players, coaches, and management.

“Students are very idealistic when they say ‘If I was in the locker room I’d ask why they were drinking.’ But then no one would talk to you for the rest of the year. How could you do your job then?”

“The day-to-day reporters that cover the team know a lot more than they print.  Sometimes they do that purposely.  If a reporter could sit down and make list of all the things that are never reported, you’d totally be amazed.”

Boston has always been a tough sports media town, especially in regards to its coverage of the Red Sox.  In the 70’s and 80’s many a player would refuse to play for the Red Sox because of the difficult media environment.  That seemed to change recently as the Sox won two World Series titles over the last seven years.  With how the media has been reporting on the 2011 club since the end of the season, will Boston again be a city on the list of undesirable destinations for potential free agents?  Shorr doubts it.

“If they offer a guy more money, He’ll deal with the media.”

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