Columnist: Deadline pressure creates ethical hurdles

Rani Gupta

Increasing pressure on sports journalists is leading writers down a dangerous ethical path, The New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden said Monday.

Rhoden spoke to more than 100 people in Fisk Hall as part of the Medill School of Journalism’s Crain Lecture series. The speech was co-sponsored by the African-American studies department and Blackboard magazine.

The pressures Rhoden said he was concerned about stem from the media’s increasing use of high-speed technology. Because many media outlets require sports stories to be posted on the Internet soon after an event occurs, writers face “non-stop” deadlines, Rhoden said.

“We don’t have the opportunity to stop and reflect, to let things percolate,” Rhoden said.

Consequently, Rhoden said, journalists are forced to make ethical decisions under severe time constraints.

“My concern is that the moral and ethical fiber of journalism is not keeping up with the technological change,” he said.

Athletes often are wary of reporters, he said, because they think they are presented differently in articles than how they present themselves in interviews.

“The choice too many of us has made has led us to a point in society when people don’t trust us,” Rhoden said. “We are becoming bloodhounds following a false scent rather than following the truth wherever it leads.”

Rhoden spoke about how journalists are too willing to intrude in people’s personal lives to get a story. He said this especially affects athletes because in sports, “image and illusion mean so much.”

The way athletes are presented also depends on their willingness to talk with reporters, Rhoden said.

“Who’s a good guy and a bad guy depends on who makes our jobs easier,” he said.

As an example, Rhoden talked at length about the treatment Baltimore Ravens player Ray Lewis received from reporters during this year’s Super Bowl.

“I was ashamed of my profession for the vitriol and animosity with which questions were asked about things that had already happened,” Rhoden said, referring to the linebacker’s involvement in a murder case last year.

“They – we – were waiting for Ray Lewis to apologize,” Rhoden said.

He compared the media’s negative coverage of Lewis to the treatment of New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, who had also faced scandal over some racially offensive remarks.

If Lewis had apologized to the media like Collins had, Rhoden said, the press would have treated him more favorably.

Rhoden said sports journalists have no right to force athletes to answer to the media.

If an athlete’s image changes for the better, Rhoden said, it is “not because he has changed, but because his image has changed. And who creates image? We do.”

Rhoden also criticized the predominantly white, male sports media’s “consistent, negative, knee-jerk reaction to black athletes.”

The negative coverage stems from most athletes being black, which provides a challenge that journalists have failed to meet, Rhoden said.

Current journalists also fail to put their stories in historical perspective, Rhoden said.

“Deadlines are always on top of us, so that history becomes yesterday’s news,” he said. “We often have to understand how we arrived at this point in order to plot a course.”

Mike DePilla, a Medill freshman, said he agreed with some of Rhoden’s ideas.

“I agree that the principles of journalism are kind of in question,” he said.