Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Misconceptions of Media’s Role Miss the Point of Journalism

Just over two years ago, I wrote a column about the importance of perspective when it comes to making executive decisions about the hirings and firings of a sports team (Yanks, Sox Not Lucky in Fall Classic, THE HOYA, Oct. 28, 2005, A10).. A couple of big-market clubs had just been bounced from the MLB playoffs, and the Northeast radio stations were abuzz with speculation on what would happen to Joe Torre. Yes, it was actually two years ago – not two weeks ago – that this was happening.

The bottom line of the story was that front offices tend to be a little too knee-jerk when things go awry on the big stage. A team that gets dropped from a sports postseason may not be lacking the right personnel or even the right heart; it may simply be lacking the right hits, the right passes, the right luck at the right time. Despite the unfortunate headline (not mine), anyone who actually read the article would have known that it was a plea to save the jobs of worthy management, not a defiant pronouncement that the Sox-less, Yanks-less playoffs were a waste of everyone’s time. At no point, contrary to popular belief, was a Comiskey-sized “Suck It!” bestowed upon Midwestern baseball fans.

That didn’t matter, of course. The responses arrived in full force. One of them, a Letter to the Editor written by a proud White Sox fan (Yankees, Red Sox Domination Days Over, THE HOYA, Nov. 1, 2005, A2), “hate[d] to break it to you, Mr. Fumelli, but the days of Yankees-Red Sox in the ALCS are numbered. … Of course, with an East Coast baseball bias like yours, it wouldn’t seem that way, would it?”

The author had evidently engaged in just enough Facebook espionage to decipher that I’m from New York. As to the fact that the team I follow is neither Yankees nor the Red Sox, well, I guess it was hidden well enough for even the most Spy-Museum-trained sleuths to ignore.

Does this sound familiar to you? An article interpreted to vaguely run counter to a group’s beliefs, added to a piece of corroborating personal information about the writer, equaling an assault on his credibility?

I’m referring, rather belatedly, to the Georgetown spin-off of the much larger Jena Six controversy. Much of the dialogue it produced was healthy for Georgetown. But it became less healthy when THE HOYA was trumpeted as racist. It stopped being healthy when D. Pierce Nixon was singled out as a bigot. And it became outright unhealthy when Max Sarinsky, this newspaper’s editor in chief and a hell of a guy at that, had his apartment window pierced by a rock some coward threw.

One thing I’ve learned since my time as a sports and feature editor and since starting this column is that courses of events like these – the thrown stones, you see, are usually metaphorical – are all too common. They’re not debilitating for a writer by any means; any talk, after all, is good talk. But they are indicative of a general and distressing misunderstanding of what writers – sports and otherwise – are supposed to do. That, for the record, is what this column is about.

Misconception No. 1: The media just can’t get anything right.

Sometimes “the media” (if there is such a thing) make mistakes. In their most common form, these mistakes are unacceptable, but peripheral, to the real story; minor corrections are usually issued. In their second-most-common form, they are due to misinformation provided by a source. The story might simply state something along the lines of “Thompson: Hibbert Grew an Inch” – even if Thompson were wrong, the report would still be accurate. Nevertheless, journalists of even mediocre standing will nobly accept the blame for their sources’ deficiencies. And the hullabaloo that results from these situations is a testament to the work that fact-checking requires, and also to the fact that any given story is probably 100-percent right. Even the media’s most ardent critics would rather pick up a newspaper than sniff for the story themselves.

Anti-media bias exists because it’s just so darn easy to blame them. A newspaper isn’t going to defend itself on its own pages. An athlete, meanwhile, gets a free pass when he defends remarks that were “taken out of context.” Most are unaware that the “taken out of context” defense is tantamount to saying that the reporter doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. A coach is actually taken out of context when he critiques a player’s shot selection and the resulting headline is “Thompson: Hibbert Sucks.” In most cases, what the person should really be saying is, “Oops. I misspoke.”

Misconception No. 2: The student paper is not allowed to write negative things about its team.

Yes, we’re all Hoyas fans. But if we’re decent journalists, we’re going to be saying something’s wrong if we’re seeing something wrong, especially in the forum of a column. If that means calling out a specific player, so be it. Anyone who expects to receive positive attention from fans has to expect to be up for criticism, too. Midnight Madness and the men’s basketball home opener may still be ringing in our ears, but if THE HOYA ends up becoming a cheering section in 2007-08, we won’t be doing our job.

This is where readers get most defensive, and where the e-mails really fill our inboxes. Witness Jim Boeheim’s tirade last year after “our own student newspaper” – perish the thought! – reported various assistant coaches’ claim that Syracuse’s star player was overrated. “I guarantee you [they] will never be head coaches if they think Gerry cNamara is overrated,” Boeheim said. “Of course our paper won’t print that anyway because somebody said it.”

Sometimes the accusations are almost silly, like when four students wrote in April that THE HOYA’s headline regarding the Final Four elimination – “Dream Denied” – “was an inaccurate expression of campus sentiment regarding the Hoya men’s basketball team’s run during the NCAA tournament” (“HOYA Sports Coverage Unfair,” THE HOYA, April 13, 2007, A2). That’s great, but did you really want the headline to read, “Against Ohio State, Georgetown Completes Another Chapter of Inspiring, Majestic Run?”

Misconception No. 3: OK, fine, the local paper is allowed to write negative things about its team. Just not on Game Day.

This is as ridiculous as it gets. Sportswriters don’t work for the teams and athletes they cover, even if Barry Bonds treats his reporters as if they did. There is already an unspoken rule that sitting on a damaging story until the Big Game is classless, and for good reason. But if coming out with a negative story is relevant to the game at hand, then why should a newspaper hold back the news?

Just weeks ago, Oklahoma State University’s head football coach Mike Gundy went ballistic at a press conference because The Oklahoman’s (not the student newspaper) Jenni Carlson wrote something negative on game day about his recently-deposed starting quarterback. One specific statement – that Bobby Reid’s being fed chicken by his mom was symbolic of how he is seen by his coaches – was a little harsh, but the story was not inherently unfair. Gundy, not surprisingly, went on to say that “three-fourths of [the article] is fiction” and refused to say which parts he was referring to.

Some reacted similarly when I wrote about Verizon Center’s annoying accessibility to opposing fans – on the day that Georgetown ended up beating Duke in front of a lot of Duke fans. Unlike at OSU, though, copies of the game day HOYA weren’t removed and hidden by athletic department officials. Unlike Carlson, I didn’t receive open threats in online comments about my article.

Criticize the media all you want, because doing so is important. Don’t criticize them, though, if it’s for one of the above reasons. We owe our journalists a little less flak for doing a job that most of us don’t have the time or the patience to do ourselves. The best thing for writers to do is to write how they want to write, no matter how many stones are thrown their way.

And, of course, to delight just a little in how much the Chicago White Sox sucked this year.

Alex Fumelli is a senior in the College and a former features and sports editor for THE HOYA. He can be reached at THE MENDOZA LINE appears every other Tuesday in HOYA SPORTS.

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