In this round of the blogger contest, our contestants were each assigned a mainstream media figure to interview. They were given the ability to ask any question and take the interview in any direction. Kate Martin is up first and she was assigned FoxSports.com’s head college basketball writer Jeff Goodman.
The sports journalist is a strange creature. They are, by definition a contradiction. The best journalists are fans themselves, yet are required by their job to put aside their personal relationships and biases in order to do their job effectively. They are asked everyday to build relationships with the men and women they interview, and then told they must put these aside for the sake of this abstract concept of “journalistic integrity”. They walk a fine line, weaving on their tightrope through hostile fans waiting for a perceived slight of their team, knowing that no matter their carefulness, they will always be accused of being a “hater” or a “homer” or worst of all, both.
Perhaps no other theme has emerged so prevalently this summer here on KSR than the role personal biases play in the media. Yes, we’re Kentucky fans, and therefore are required by law to believe in the conspiracy of all sports journalists to bring down the Cats. But this summer, with the rise of Pat Ford (but only when talk turns to Coach Cal) and the fall of Fred Cowgill (at the knees of Rick Pitino), the topic has been a hot button in the sports world.
When I received my assignment to interview Jeff Goodman of Fox sports, I knew I wanted to ask him about his experiences in a career that demands objectivity, yet thrives on the rabidity of the fan bases it caters to.
“As a writer, you try to be as objective as you can,” explained Goodman, “We’re supposed to be impartial and not let preconceived notions get in the way. But you develop personal relationships with coaches and players. It’s easer said than done to be completely impartial and objective.”
Developing relationships with players makes writers like Goodman better at their jobs, yet also presents them with the problem of keeping their personal views out of the pieces they write.
“Joakim Noah is a great example for me,” Goodman said, “He gives the greatest interviews and obviously I wanted him to go forward. It makes your job easier when a kid goes to the final four who can fill up your notebook. It’s difficult, but I’m not going to let my views or relationships get in the way of the job I have to do.”
For Goodman and other journalists like him, the balance that is required to juggle multiple readership fan bases can be overwhelming.
“I get emails from UNC fans saying I’m biased for Duke and I get emails from Duke fans saying I’m biased for UNC,” Goodman explained, “No one reads everything you write. I could write nine pro-Carolina pieces and one pro-Duke and the Carolina fans will pick out the one pro-Duke.”
Not surprisingly, UK fans too have gotten into the action.
“UK fans hated my guts for two years because I said at the beginning that Gillispie was the wrong hire,” said Goodman, “And now you hear nothing like ‘Oh sorry, you were right’ when I’ve been proven right about the Gillispie hire being the wrong one.”
At times, sports journalism can seem like a contest of controversy; a race to be the most outrageous, to get the most hits, to generate the most discussion. Even seasoned journalists like Goodman can feel the pressure to appease readership.
“People tend to focus on the negative in life,” he said, “I know that positive puff pieces won’t create a lot of discussion. Every writer wants to be read, but not at the expense of accuracy.”
Goodman went on to explain that the pressure he feels from his editors and readers isn’t one to create controversy, but another kind of force. “I don’t feel pressure to have an outrageous opinion, but I do feel it to be correct. I feel some pressure to break information, but more so to be accurate. You can’t be first in everything. No one will remember the one time you didn’t break the news. But everyone will remember when you get it wrong. You have to make sure that everything is factually correct,” he said.
When I asked him about the media’s handling of the Pitino saga, Goodman tried to explain the precarious position that local journalists are often put in.
“You won’t find many beat writers who will criticize the coaches, simply because they have to deal with them on an everyday basis and they don’t want to be shut out,” he explained.
And Goodman’s opinion on Pitino’s now infamous attack on the media? Well that’s a little more complicated. “I think he was frustrated and felt like he wasn’t allowed to speak,” Goodman explained, “He let his emotions get the best of him. The problem is, when you go at the media you’ll never win.”
For UK fans, however, the media’s handling of the Pitino case is a distant second in frustrating media maneuvers. First is Coach Calipari and the feeling that some coaches are insulated from rumors by journalists while others are not. I asked Goodman about his feelings on Coach Cal. “I have said that when you’re running a program, you are responsible for the program,” he said, “I think part of it with Calipari is not having enough control. There is something to be said about reeling in players.”
But Goodman went on to praise the coach’s devotion to his players and coaches. “Cal takes care of his guys. He takes care of his coaches and he takes care of his players, even after they’ve left school. He’s as loyal as it gets.”
The need for objectivity is a tightrope that all in sports journalism walk daily. More than ever, the slants and opinions of editors and writers are shaping the financial outlook and public opinion of teams across the globe. The seasoned veteran journalist had some sage advice for his colleagues in the strange world of sports journalism.
“Every writer needs to do a better job in not having a story already written before you do an interview. Some writers go into an interview knowing what kind of story they’re going to write,” said Goodman, “A lot of things you get in the locker room can change your entire view on the story.”
And a lot of things this lowly blogger got on my phone call with a national journalist changed my views too.