SMG: Predefined narratives and maintaining trust

Last week, Kevin Durant lectured sports reporters in the Bay Area about their coverage of his impending free agency and potential connection with the New York Knicks.

Durant was widely criticized in media circles for these comments, which did come off as a bit childish and petulant.

And yet, that story got me thinking back to a conversation I had with activist and former NBA player Etan Thomas. We were speaking before our discussion at SUNY Oswego in October, and our conversation drifted toward the relationship between athletes and sports journalists. I didn’t take notes and wasn’t recording because it was a casual conversation, so I hope I am not misconstruing anything. But what I took away from talking to Thomas was that athletes read everything that’s written about him, and that distrust of reporters is very common in locker rooms. Athletes feel that reporters are often unfair with their critiques and that they’re out to make players look bad in their stories.

Whether that’s true or not, that feeling is real.

It also got me thinking about stories I heard on two of my favorite podcasts, Back to Work and Do By Friday. Long story short: A writer for The Atlantic was doing a reported essay about Inbox Zero, a term coined by Merlin Mann, a cohost on both podcasts. The reporter contacted Max Temkin, also a host on Do By Friday, for comments for a story about “the hellish quest for Inbox Zero.”

Temkin wrote a long email reply about how that phrase is almost universally used incorrectly, but the writer only used a snippet of his response and wrote a piece that fundamentally misconstrues the term.

All of this got me thinking about journalists’ relationships with sources.

Traditionally in media sociology, we view the journalist-source relationship as being one-sided. Herbert Gans called it a dance in which the source always leads. And there’s a lot of truth to that. Journalists can’t be in the room where things happen, and they have daily (sometimes hourly) deadlines, and so they need access to and relationships with sources. Sources have an incredible amount of power and agency over journalism.

But there are a lot of times when journalists have more power than their sources do.

This is especially true when journalists come into a story with the story already written. They have an angle they are pursuing, a specific point of view, and they are looking for quotes and anecdotes and research to fit that predetermined narrative. It’s the ultimate in confirmation bias. That’s what happened with the Inbox Zero article, and it’s why any eloquent defense of it would be forever consigned to the journalist’s email.

It’s important to note – journalists don’t always do this for nefarious reasons. The best description of it comes from, of all people, Mitch Albom. From his book Fab Five:

In a perfect world, this is how sports journalism would work: The editor would assign as story about a team. The reporter would have at least two weeks. He or she would spend an hour with all the principal characters. And watch at least three different games. And explore the perception of the team. And be prepared to refute it — even if it meant the story was less interesting. Yeah. And if elephants had wings … Very few, if any newspapers — or television stations or radio stations, for that matter — have the time, budget or desire to do things this way. Editors often assign pieces with a preconceived notion. “Get us a story on the way they trash-talk… “ “Get us a story on their arrogance…” Reporters, with limited time and budgets, often settle for telling an already-told tale in their own words. They use previous articles as research. They ask questions that have been asked a million times before. Not surprisingly, in the brief five minutes they get with an athlete, they hear the same tired answers. Before you know it, a “national image” is spread, based on the weight of all these slapdash reports that seem to conclude the same thing.

(Yes, irony is asking for something strong that a plagiarist like Albom wrote a sermon like this).

It may not seem like a big deal, but it is. At a time when trust in the media is low and when the president and entire Republican Party is making a platform out of calling the press the enemy of the people, we in our industry need to do everything we can to build and maintain trust.

And writing stories with predefined narratives erodes that. Bit by bit, like water over a rock. As Mann said on podcasts above, when you hear journalism done about you or a topic you know something about, you tend to notice all the inaccuracies or incorrect assumptions. And that makes you start to wonder about the inaccuracies or incorrect assumptions in other stories.

That’s what journalists need to guard against. Trust is all we have. Without the trust of our sources, we are flying blind and have to rely on second- and third-hand information even more. Without the trust of our readers, we’ve got nothing.

It’s why I tell my students to have an idea for a story, but never stay wed to it. Be open to your story going any other direction. It’ll be more accurate. It’ll be more interesting. And it will help build trust in your work.