As I’ve written before, you know you have a PR problem when journalists consistently use the word “embattled” as part of your title. So, it’s only fitting to write that Embattled Former Michigan Football Coach Rich Rodriguez was fired today. As I write, that’s a fact. But, as of yesterday, it may not have been. Or maybe it was. It depends on which news reports you chose to believe.
The past few days we have seen numerous exhibits of the kind of news reporting that seems to have a shelf life of minutes. As a meeting between the Embattled Coach and his boss, one TV station reported him as “fired,” citing a source not identified in any way. About an hour later, another news organization reported that he “will be fired” citing unnamed sources. Several hours later, the University of Michigan issued a statement saying all reports about a firing were “media speculation” and that there was no decision. So who did you believe? Especially when Athletic Director David Brandon announced today that he made his decision today.
Concurrently, there has been a similar barrage of reports with unnamed sources along with opinions disguised as news about the future of Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback. It seems everyone has an opinion on where he’ll go and if a journalist hears any opinion from anyone deemed “close to Harbaugh,” it can get reported.
With 24-hour sports TV, smart phone access to sports headlines, Twitter, sports talk radio and other platforms that serve the sports fan, we see this every time there is a major personnel move in sports. Why?
To answer that question, I think back to my early years in PR. One of my first clients, after I left the news business, was a daily newspaper. I helped them put together community roundtable meetings so top editors could discuss the paper directly with readers. One reader in one meeting criticized the paper for its crime coverage saying, “but I know that sells newspapers.” To that, a senior editor responded, “Crime doesn’t sell newspapers. Sports does.”
Sports fans are voracious consumers of information and exchangers of opinion. The most clicked-on stories every day at many large local news websites are sports stories. Each of us pays more for ESPN as part of our cable or satellite bill than any other individual channel. In many large markets, sports radio stations are among the highest rated. The bottom line – sports makes the big media companies a lot of money.
That explains, in sports reporting, why the rush to report, even with flimsy information that too often doesn’t meet accepted journalistic standards, can make it to the public. Simply put, in the modern era of media, it gets clicks. It attracts eyeballs. It gets reader comments. It gets retweeted. Most importantly, it helps media outlets sell numbers to advertisers.
The lowering of standards in the name of making money in a down economy? The media business is no different from so many others.