photo credit: NHL.com/NHLPA
by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / hatemailaccount at gmail
Good morning sports media watchers. A little longer preamble than usual today.
I tossed and turned all week about what to write in this space, given the sad events that are at the centre of this week’s sports media news. I spoke to about a dozen people in the media to help me figure out how real journalists think about their professional ethical duties. What follows are my own considered thoughts, albeit greatly informed by the wisdom of others. I have tried to be as fair as possible to all parties and I apologize in advance if I have not been sufficiently measured in my words or tone.
Montador Dies, Mirtle Tweets
Ex-NHL player Steve Montador died at age 35. Within hours of the news breaking, James Mirtle of the Globe went on Twitter and wrote: “Steve Montador’s death believed to be a suicide. He suffered from concussions and depression. Difficult financial situation I’d heard.” Awful Announcing has the complete story.
Shortly after tweeting that, Mirtle deleted it and issued the following conditional apology:
On Montador: There's an updated report from police it was natural causes with further investigation coming. If so I apologize to his family.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 15, 2015
The “if” in his apology turned out to be the case, as suicide has now been ruled out and it appears that he died of natural causes. I say “appears” because Rick Westhead reports that Montador had recently joined the concussion lawsuit against the NHL. It is unclear at this time if Montador’s brain will be examined for evidence of CTE, but even if it is Rick reminds us that “[a]utopsy reports in Canada tend to be covered by privacy laws, and wouldn’t be disclosed to the public unless it can be established that their release would serve the public interest.”
There have been many moving stories about the man that was Steve Montador this week. If you have the time and the emotional fortitude then Eric Francis’ piece in the Calgary Sun and Ken Campbell’s piece at the Hockey News are both must-reads.
Journalistic Ethics & Twitter
Let’s break down exactly what went wrong here. Mirtle decided to connect the dots between things he was told about Montador and his sudden death without verifying whether the dots were actually connected. That’s not a mistake; that’s human nature. The mistake is publishing those thoughts in their unverified form. Had he waited and sought out confirmation then he would have found out that his information was wrong.
One can imagine this being a risk worth taking in some cases … like a big trade or a firing or a franchise move. We’ve seen those kinds of mistakes happen plenty of times in local hockey coverage. You throw something out there and if it sticks then you get to bask in the glory of being first, and your paper or network gets to gloat to the competition. And if you miss? Oh well, “bad intel” and on to the next juicy rumour.
But this is so obviously different that it’s hard to know why Mirtle didn’t stop himself from tweeting this out. To include the phrase “I heard” along with anything related to a person’s tragic death is just wrong. James could have avoided all of this just by following the example of his 2011 self, who reported in his paper and on Twitter on the death of NHLer Rick Rypien, which was eventually confirmed as a suicide.
So the transgression seems to be a lack of due diligence in reporting. However, whether or not the intel he was given was right seems to me to be irrelevant in this case. Let’s engage in the following thought-experiment: what if his speculation turns out to be true and we eventually find out this was a suicide? Would that make tweeting out “I’d heard” hours after the man’s death any less terrible? Would that vindicate the original tweet?
I can’t see that it would. You just don’t know why a person commits suicide and, unless the family releases a note detailing the reasons, you’ll never know if financial problems had anything to do with his death. So no matter how much you want to share what you’d heard, you just can’t. Journalistic ethics tells you you can’t, and short of that, compassion for the family should be the failsafe.
No one with whom I spoke thought this was “no big deal” but there was some disagreement about how big of a deal this actually is. There were roughly two camps here: 1) Everybody makes mistakes and what matters is that you quickly correct them, and 2) this is a significant violation of journalistic ethics. Here there was more divergence of opinion, though most fell into the latter camp.
What has been striking is that almost no one in or covering that industry has voluntarily denounced Mirtle’s mistake. After waiting for a public comment from the paper, on Friday I finally asked Globe sports editor Shawna Richer for a comment to which she replied: “James has been away, but it seems clear to me that he understood the original tweet was a mistake and he did what he could by both apologizing and deleting the tweet.”
Other than that, we have heard nothing from the Globe’s senior media writer Simon Houpt. Nothing from the Globe’s media reporter James Bradshaw, nothing from the Star’s media reporter Raju Mudhar, and nothing from prominent and vocal working journalists Cox, Simmons, Arthur, etc. The impression with which the public is left is that real journalists don’t care enough about this issue to speak up. If the professionals don’t see fit to talk about this, who does that leave?
The lone wolf barking into the resounding silence was the FAN’s Andrew Walker – making headlines on this site for several weeks in a row – who went on his radio show (Feb 16th, 6am hour) and on Twitter to express his dismay.
It's not a game show. You don't win a prize for "taking a stab at it"
— Andrew Walker (@FAN590Walker) February 15, 2015
Early this week I reached out to James to see if he wanted to comment for this piece and yesterday he sent me this reply:
“I feel terrible about it. Honestly I’ve thought about what went wrong every day since then because I’ve never done something like that. I did do reporting that day and had some good information, but the tweet was carelessly phrased and misleading. I wish I’d paused and rethought what I was saying before I hit send. As others have since written, Montador had been struggling and his family and friends were concerned about him. The last thing I wanted to do was add to their pain that day. He certainly sounded like a good man.”
I don’t know about you, but that felt really good to read and provides a lot more closure than if he had said nothing. Thank you James for going on record here.
Mistakes & Forgiveness
If it doesn’t already, next year’s Ryerson journalism curriculum should devote a unit to the ethics of talking about death. We now have 3 recent Canadian sports cases:
1) Pat Burns
2) Oilers prospect Kristians Pelss
3) Steve Montador
If you need to remind yourself of the details of these other cases, here is PPP excoriating Cox for tweeting that Pat Burns was dead when he wasn’t. Here, again, is PPP shredding Blundell for his joke about death being worse than returning to Edmonton.
Blundell is who he is and no one will confuse him with a journalist, so I don’t want to spend much time on that case. The really interesting case study is the Burns one. As you might recall, both Cox and TSN’s Ray Ferraro went ahead with the wrong information without getting independent confirmation. We can debate whether Cliff Fletcher needs a 2nd source some other time. There are lots of differences between these two cases and I’m not trying to suggest they are the same.
There is one dimension along which I’d like to compare them though. According to this report by Bruce Dowbiggin, Cox was defiant at the prospect of admitting any wrongdoing while Ferraro had this to say: “I should have called [TSN colleague] Bob McKenzie to verify it […] He’s a friend of Pat’s. I was wrong. I can tell you it will never happen again. Never. I just wish I could tell Pat and his family how embarrassed and sorry I am about this.”
I just want to point out how meaningful these words are, and what a difference having something heartfelt, sincere, and unconditional on the record makes. Most of us don’t have a large public audience to witness our professional mistakes or a blog devoted to chronicling them for all eternity. We are often quick to criticize the media for failing to respect the humanity in the athletes they cover, and that maxim applies here too. Regardless of how you feel about Mirtle’s online persona or the analytics wars, the guilt any normal person would feel over this mistake must be a significant punishment unto itself.
The other aspect of the forgiveness angle that is worth discussing is what this will do for Mirtle’s relationship with the players he covers. Pro sports is a brotherhood and I imagine Montador has friends who are still playing in the NHL. I wonder how they will react to this. TSN has to worry about the growing list of their personalities – Siegel, Feschuk, and now Mirtle – who have become part of the story this season.
Final thought on this: since professional journalists have decided to get out of the criticism game, we basement dwellers have been thrust into battle like hapless Hobbits trying to wrangle an army of Orcs. But there are some semi-retired people still floating around the margins of the fray. Chris Zelkovich, ex of the Star’s sports media column, had this to say.
“The desire and pressure to get stories first has created a lot of potential pitfalls for journalists, and social media has made things even more dangerous. A lot of good journalists have fallen into this trap. The sad truth is that nobody remembers the guy who got the story first, but many will remember the guys who got it wrong.”
That’s well said, so I’ll make it the last word.
Well-followed twitterer and podcaster Hope Smoke (Marco Perruzza) joined the ranks of the aggrieved and afflicted this week when TSN’s Jeff O’Neill called him a loser on Twitter. The since deleted tweet reads: “@Hope_Smoke Go on the panel and let me play golf. I beg you. I want to play golf. You’re such a loser I don’t think they will call you.” He then went on his radio show to repeat the attack saying “nobody cares who he is … get your own show … some guys are smart but these other creeps, get out of my life” before ending with a somewhat ill-placed “why is there so much hate and anger?”
These comments were met with oodles of chuckles from host Bryan Hayes and guest Darren Dreger. The “O’Dog” has rocketed to local prominence in his short time in the media and he needs to be bigger than this. This is not fighting fire with fire. In this loser’s opinion, he owes Marco an apology. I hope he gets it.
Kevin Durant (NBA all-star) recently spoke out against what he perceives to be a problematic lack of accountability within the media. He went further and said that he talks to the media because he has to, but that he doesn’t really respect a lot of what is written about him or his team. Ramona Shelburne, Senior Writer at ESPN, delivered some great insights on this matter on TSN Drive (Feb 16th Hour 3). The landscape of athlete-media relations is changing quickly. This will be an interesting story to watch going forward. TSN producers also deserves credit here for using their ESPN connections to really explore this story in depth.
Still with TSN, the cable channel posted its most watched month in 5 years this January. AA’s Andrew Buchholtz breaks down the numbers and what this means for the future of cable sports. Chris Zelkovich also has a report for Yahoo.
Still still with TSN, Rick Westhead has a really interesting look into new CTE methods that allow diagnosis in living brains. This has the potential to revolutionize how brain injuries are treated, both medically and legally, in sports.
Lastly, what is it about elite European soccer that makes it such fertile ground for shockingly overt racism? Chelsea supporters prevented a black man from boarding a train in Paris while chanting “we are racists.” It’s been almost 70 years since Jackie Robinson broke the modern era colour barrier in baseball. None of the 4 North American sports have this problem with their fan bases. Any theories? Help me understand how this keeps happening in soccer. I’m at a total loss.
Low Hanging Fruit
- Howard Bryant of ESPN has been added as a regular guest on TSN Drive and he is quickly turning in to must listen radio.
- While I find PTS roundtables painful and avoid them as a matter of course, I do try to tune in when there is a newcomer. Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston held his own, picked his spots, and made cogent arguments when called upon. He did well.
- Elliotte Friedman still suffers from “smartest guy in the room syndrome” on the roundtables, in my opinion. He’s always the first to talk and doesn’t listen especially well. As has been the case for several years now, I’m rooting for him to have more of a role on the FAN in the future so I mean those remarks as constructive criticism.
- Countdown to Blundell is in the home stretch and we are all waiting to see who will be part of his crew, and especially who will be brought in to play the female character. If you were a woman looking to vault into a career in sports media, would you take the risk of joining Blundell’s show?
- My man Ben Ennis did a good job co-hosting with Walker on Family Day Monday. Give this man a regular gig. How about making him Wilner’s co-host on JaysTalk?
thanks for reading and commenting,
hug your family
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)