The rise of the preoccupation of journalism with celebrity- driven news, part of a wider ‘tabloidization’ thesis (Sparks, 2000) has seen the increasing profile allocated to sports become implicated in this wider process of ‘dumping down’.
In other words, the rise in quantity of sports coverage and its supposed attendant fixation with celebrity sports stars, particularly in the broadsheet press since the 1990s, as well as its increasing profile with mainstream television news, is seen as an example of ‘dumping down’.
If, as Franklin(1997:5) argues, news organisations and journalism in general is now fixated with entertainment-driven news and ‘the task of journalism has become merely to deliver and serve up whatever the customer wants’, then it appears increasingly what they want is sports- related news.
There remains a certain irony in this situation. The key claims now leveled at journalism in general about a decline in the standard and rigor that journalists bring to their craft have been a common criticism aimed at sections of sports journalism for decades.
When a then President of Baseball’s National League in the USA addressed the American Society of Newspaper editors in the 1980s, he lambasted the quality of sports journalism and its internal policing by newspaper editors.
He argued that editors ignored the sports section: They ignore it in the sense, and it is an important one, that the same set of editorial standards for accuracy, competence, distinguishing fact from opinion, rewriting, and editing are simply not applied consistently or rigorously to sports sections as they are applied to other sections of the newspaper.
The paradox being that at a-time when similar accusations are being made about the wider culture of political and economic journalism, and the growth of sports journalism, certainly in the UK, is seen as a symbolic example of declining standards, sports journalism is probably better policed than at any time in its history.
While the tabloid market undoubtedly retains many aspects outlined by Giamatti, the expanded range and coverage in the broadsheet/ compact market means there has never been more systematic, insightful and rigorous sports journalism of what Rowe (1992) calls the ‘reflexive analysis’ type available in the UK newspaper market.
Thus sports journalism interfaces with the wider ‘tabloidisation’ of the press thesis in an interesting manner.
Sparks (2000), in his excellent overview of the supposed ‘tabloidisation’ of journalism is keen to stress the historical dimension to this process and its attendant debate.
He also argues that the current concerns should be seen as part of this longer process that is ‘reformulating’ the news media, as ‘serious’ newspapers in particular seek to address a changing ‘readership’.
This is a readership dramatically altered through a rise in educational levels and changes in the labour market and family structures. When this is combined with a more commercially aggressive news marketplace he argues that what we are experiencing is a specific staging post in the evolution of the relationship between journalism, society and democracy.
Some newspaper editors view this shifting terrain as less of a threat and agree with Sparks (2000) that what have changed are society’s expectations of what it requires from its media.
To this end they argue that newspapers to a greater extent accurately reflect the breaking down of more traditional class based barriers related to cultural taste: the public and the private and the centrality of popular culture in our everyday lives.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the then broadsheet Guardian newspaper, argued in November 2000 that changes in the broadsheet press simply reflected wider cultural shifts in taste and the breaking down of areas of supposedly high and low culture. He asks incredulously that:
You can’t possibly care about debt relief and the Simpsons. If you listen to Ligeti andjames Macmillan then why would you want to know who won the united game last night or which Cabernet Sauvignon to drink with your meal tonight? Get back into your box.
Something else missing from the Times of 1968 was anything to do with the home or emotional life.
There is nothing about marriage, divorce, children, schools, au pairs, depression, drinking, health, drugs, teenagers, affairs, fashion, sex, successful relationships, failing relationships, interior decor, cancer, infertility, faith, grandparents or any of the other things that make up the texture of our non-working lives.
This ties in with what Sparks (2000: 32) suggests is the need to view such broadsheet newspapers as ‘bundles of serious and less serious materials’; the challenge for newspapers is getting that mix or balance correct in terms of attracting and retaining their target readership.
Hence the rise in the space and resource allocated to the coverage of sports in the ‘serious’ broadsheet press in the UK over the last decade or so is in part explained by placing it within this wider context of the ‘reformulation’ of a more market-driven journalism.
However, an interesting wider theoretical position implicitly underpins much of the debate around the ‘tabliodisation’ and ‘dumping down’ of journalism.
This suggests that ultimately sports journalism (and other forms of entertainment-focused journalism) is really the antithesis of what journalism should be really about. Sparks (2000: 14), for example, places scandal, sports and entertainment on one end of an axis of ‘different press fields’ in contrast to politics, economics and society.
It appears that sports journalism does appear still to lie beyond the boundary of ‘serious journalism’. Sparks (2000: 16), however, does recognise that when a broadsheet newspaper such as The Financial Times carries analysis of the relationship between football and ‘the business strategies of global broadcasting companies’, this represents a different form of journalism. He argues that:
The true tabloid story is about the sexual antics of a footballer (any kind of football), and an operational definition of tabloidization is the process by which the press pays more and more attention to that kind of material at the expense of the coverage of public affairs. (Sparks, 2000: 16) Political journalist Andrew Marr’s account (2004) of the history of British journalism makes little reference to sports journalism.
Marr admits this is an area of the print media that he does not know well, or indeed for that matter have a great deal of interest in. However, his critique of the problems facing contemporary journalism indicates that sports journalism faces similar issues to that being experienced in other areas of the trade.
Indeed, in one area, the rise of the influence of public relations on journalism, Marr argues that rather than being overly concerned with the prevalence of celebrity-driven news: The more worrying trends in British news values are related instead to the growth of an office-based, editorial culture, rather than a reporters’ journalism.
The trouble is office- bound journalists from modern newspapers become dependent on fixers: the media-trained university experts; the polling companies with a story to sell. (2004: 115).
In this area, sports journalists tend to buck the trend. They spend less time office bound than other journalists, either being out at actual sporting events, or attending press conferences or chasing interviews.
This is not to suggest that the tendency to be drip-fed information from other media sources, such as rolling sports news broadcasts and television coverage of sport, means that sports journalists are completely exempt from this general drift to stay wedded to the office.
Simply that it is interesting to note how sports reporting still offer opportunities to move beyond the increasingly prevalent office culture of the contemporary journalist.
What becomes increasingly evident from the research carried out on the print media, particularly in the UK, is that for many scholars sports coverage and sports journalism are not really viewed as part of what journalism (and certainly serious journalism) is really about.
It is also worth noting that many within the profession itself also share these doubts as to the veracity of sports journalism being a legitimate part of the wider journalistic landscape.
In 2002, the Columbia Journalism Review special issue on American sports journalism notably began its series of articles by asking whether sports journalism was indeed journalism.
Campbell (2004: 203) also notes how sports have often been grouped together with entertainment and lifestyle journalism, categories that have sat uneasily within more traditional definitions of journalism.
Rooney identifies showbiz and sports as two of the key areas of content in his study of the tabloid newspapers the Sun and the Mirror.
He argues: ‘We should consider the Mirror and the Sun as completely separate cultural artifacts from newspapers proper. They do not offer public-affairs material, preferring instead nonferrous entertainment’ (Rooney, 2000: 103).
He concludes his study by noting that: ‘The Mirror and the Sun can no longer be regarded as “newspapers” and we must find new ways to explain their importance within working-class culture’ (Rooney, 2000: 107).
While debate over the role, importance and social value of sports journalism, both within and outside the journalism profession is very much an ongoing issue, its dismissal as a form of ‘nonferrous entertainment’ is simply to underestimate the range of material now to be found under the heading of sports journalism.
In the first instance, this approach unproblematic ally lumps all sports journalism together, making no distinction between the modes of address used by journalists or indeed the type of story being covered.
For example, one can make a case that a report of a football match may have little impact on issues relating to public affairs (unless as some would argue it is an international perhaps between England and Germany).
However, sports news coverage of London’s 2012 Olympic bid or England’s hosting of the 1996 European Football Championships is directly related to a range of political, economic and public policy issues, which in various guises are addressed by such tabloid coverage.
At the core here is an argument about what journalism is about. If journalism is about disseminating information and facilitating discussion on a range of social, political, economic and cultural issues pertinent to a society, then sports, however much some academics may dislike it, is part of that mix.
At times sport can be trivial and unimportant, at others a symbolically significant cultural form that is an indicator of wider social and cultural forces in society.
Sparks (2000) has advocated a more nuanced categorisation of a newspaper’s market position driven by content and readership (into about five interrelated areas) rather than the cruder dichotomy of broadsheet and tabloid.
However, these two categories remain important in shaping the mindset of journalists and readers alike; in much the same way as ‘Fleet Street’ remains the phrase to describe the heart of the British national press, despite the fact that it hasn’t been the home of the newspaper industry for over a decade.
Thus within journalism studies research, sports journalism has largely been under-researched. As Campbell (2004: 213) has convincingly argued: ‘In Britain sports journalism is both literally and figuratively on the back pages in discussions on journalism.’
Rather, as we have noted above, the field has been concerned with a range of key themes around the defining of journalism in the 21st century: political journalism and communication and democracy; ethics and the impact of a growing commercialisation of the media on journalistic practice.
Campbell himself suggests that, on the one hand, while the rhythms of the sports calendar lend themselves to many of the requirements of news organizations in terms of regular predictable events with a clear resolution.
On the other hand, this very routine nature of sports, the repetition of events, and the relative simplicity of those events (in comparison to say, a war or election), has left sports writing with a less important status than other forms of journalism’ (2004: 214).
From within the Academy, then, we have to look elsewhere before we find sports journalism being investigated with any sustained degree of rigour or enthusiasm.