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Sports Journalism 101:

No Cheering in the Press Box & Other Unwritten Rules

By Pam Modarelli Hegner

 
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I have found that it is getting incredibly difficult to find unbiased reporting. You have the likes of Keith Olbermann screaming in your left ear, and Glenn Beck bellowing in your right. But at least we have sports reporters. They are unbiased, right?

Well, to be honest, covering sports for a living can be hard because you will undoubtedly really like or really hate the teams and the athletes you cover. It is just human nature. Some athletes will blow you off one hundred times and others will be more than accommodating even in the face of a crushing defeat. I have been fortunate to sit in press row or the locker room and cover all of my favorite teams at one point – a dream come true.

Most of us got into this business because we wanted to get paid to follow our passion.

Doug Prusak, Executive Director at Central Florida News 13, covered Boston sports for most of his first ten years in TV. “It was hard to separate myself, but it was a labor of love,” Prusak says. “1988, Bruins-Canadiens at the old Garden. Bruins down 2-0 with about 3 minutes left. Goal, tying goal. Winning goal past Patrick Roy with about 45 seconds left. The press box erupted. Funniest thing I ever saw. We all immediately looked around to see if anyone else had cheered, and we all started laughing.”

This is a prime example of how the games can overcome you at times. Sports is pure emotion - but as journalists we have to step back and get out of fan mode. Hopefully this guide will give you some clues on how to do the same.  

Rule #1:

No cheering in the press box

The most blatant example I ever witnessed was during an MLB All-Star game. I was in the press box, and a home run was hit. A lone member of the media jumped up and cheered so loudly. I was embarrassed for him, and he looked like an idiot. I went up to him, and said jokingly (but not really) “hey, did you get the memo there is no cheering in the press box?” And he told me that his station wants them to root for the players and teams they cover. Yes, but in your head, using your quiet voice.fenway park press box sports journalism

“It's been good and bad to cover my teams,” says Kristy Rivero, Atlanta-based freelance sports producer.  “You miss that connection with fans around you who are all cheering for the same thing. But I always enjoyed being in the press box. Sure, there's no cheering, but you're still talking about the game. You still turn to your neighbor and comment on a great play. Don't get me wrong, I've done the golf clap or fist pump under the table or a ‘yes’ under my breath. I think many journalists have had a moment or two where that emotion takes over. I'd be worried about the ones who have no emotion at all.”

Veteran sportscaster Mark Viviano is the Sports Director at WJZ-TV in Baltimore and hosts a sports radio show on 105.7 The Fan. He admits he does not cheer for the Ravens or Orioles, and has been able to remove himself from any emotional attachments, unlike many of his counterparts.

 “I have observed multiple instances of media members cheering in the press box,” Viviano says. “Often it's an intern who's in the press box for the first time and has be to schooled on etiquette after they break out with a cheer. The disapproving stares are priceless. There's a radio guy in Baltimore who wears a Ravens jersey to postgame press conferences. He's been doing it for years so the local media are used to it, but out-of-town reporters are aghast. One Baltimore radio host was admonished for repeatedly cheering in the press box at Ravens games. She eventually admitted she couldn't help herself so she banned herself from the working press area.”

Rule #2

Don't ask for autographs or photos and no outwardly rooting for the athletes you cover

When you are brushing with greatness constantly, you may have an urge to ask for a photo or an autograph. Just don’t do it. It is never appropriate.

I worked with some political journalists at CNN who said they didn’t vote in elections because it allowed them to think more clearly about the candidates they report on. This makes a lot of sense to me. When you cover teams and athletes everyday it can be very difficult to remove yourself from being a fan.

As an intern in college  I was wrapping up an interview with Tom Glavine and I told him “good luck tomorrow” since he was starting the next day. The minute after I said it, I cringed knowing how unprofessional that was.

Chris Duncan is a veteran sports writer for the Associated Press. In the 2002 NCAA men’s basketball regional semifinal, his job had him courtside as his alma mater, Indiana shocked #1 Duke.

“I had a front-row seat, and memories of the best college games I saw flooded back as I watched the Hoosiers in their current form,” Duncan says. “But I was taught journalism at Indiana University, as well, by professors who groomed me to be a true journalist. It was my favorite team, yes. But it was a basketball game, plain and simple, albeit a very important one. As I was writing, the message was clear in my head: 'Tell the readers what happened. They don't care what I think. They don't care if I'm a fan. What is the story of this game? The beer, and the celebration, can wait 90 minutes.”

Rule #3:

The Athletes you cover are not your drinking buddies and you shouldn't date them

When you cover athletes day in and day out, you establish a rapport and often a friendship. But ass-kissing and drinking out of the Stanley Cup with them is a bit much. dave justice former atlanta braves halle berry oscar award winner

One night I was walking in the tunnel after leaving the Atlanta Braves locker room. I was with a female photographer who didn’t cover a lot of sports. David Justice was walking by us and she stopped him and said something along the lines of how adorable she thought he and wife Halle Berry (pictured) were after seeing them interviewed on an entertainment show. Justice just said thank you and walked on, but I was absolutely mortified. It was horrifying because women are already at a huge disadvantage as minorities covering sports and I felt like her comment made the two of us just look like we should retreat to the nail salon and read our US Magazines.

“I think most athletes can see right through sycophants, mostly TV and radio guys who suck up to them,” Duncan says.  “They respect journalists who ask tough, thoughtful questions. They don't think much of those who basically stand around and laugh at their jokes, even when they aren't funny. That's not journalism, that's unprofessional.”

And speaking of unprofessional, dating the athletes you cover crosses the line in my opinion, but it happens. One day in a hair salon, I witnessed a very prominent, national sports reporter talking very openly (and loudly) about an MLB all-star player she was dating. Revealing his name and mentioning where his apartment was located in the city he played in. Good thing she didn’t find out what I did for a living until after she went on her bragging brigade. I suspect most of the women in the salon didn’t know who she was talking about, but working in the business I obviously knew this player. I was incredibly embarrased for her and to this day, when I see her sideline reports, I cannot take her seriously.

Once again I reiterate that sports is supposed to be fun. That’s why we love it and chose it as a career. But know your place and keep the foam fingers at home.

“The fan's role in this equation is to cheer, boo and get caught up emotionally in outcomes,” Viviano says. “If someone in the media doesn't maintain an objective perspective, then the reporting and analysis can't be trusted.”

Photo courtesy (top to bottom): JeffPearlman.com, Associated Press


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