Anonymous sourcing and the problem with NBA trade ‘scoops’

There is, perhaps, no more fertile ground for scoops than sports journalism in the days leading up to a trade deadline such as the NBA’s, which arrived today at 3pm Eastern.

For the past week, the news outlets and Twitter feeds that cover the NBA have buzzed with stories about what would or would not happen by the deadline. The handful of reporters at the top of the breaking news ecosystem each broke several stories in the span of a few days—a career’s worth of output for good reporters in many other fields.

Most of these scoops are dug out of shifting sand. They add nothing to our understanding of professional basketball. Their shelf life is negligible; they break news that would have been announced publicly hours or days later. They are often so thinly sourced as to give readers no way to evaluate their credibility. And they don’t follow the standards established by mainstream news outlets for transparency on when and why anonymous sources are used.

One example: A week before the NBA trade deadline, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported that the Houston Rockets were shopping their star center, Dwight Howard. Howard was not traded before the deadline. If he had been, that story would have done nothing for its readers beyond giving them advance notice of something they would have found out later. With no trade, the reader is left with no way to know whether the story was wrong, or it was right, and the trade negotiations it described never came to fruition.

Wojnarowski is the undisputed king of NBA breaking news reporters. He’s so good that Yahoo gave him his own site, The Vertical, something nearly unheard of for a reporter known more for scoops than commentary or analysis. Like so much of his work, the Howard story was attributed to “league sources.” That doesn’t mean sources working in the league office; it just means someone connected in some way to the NBA. There is a reference lower in the story to information provided by “league executives.”

The stories that drive the trade deadline news cycle are entirely reliant on these anonymous sources. That is not necessarily a problem. Sports teams, like most businesses, aren’t eager to have their employees quoted by name discussing trade secrets, so without at least some anonymity, many of these stories would not exist at all.

But news organizations like the Associated Press and NPR have reached a near-consensus on the best ways to handle anonymous sources, and have made those standards public. The leaders in breaking sports news—chiefly, ESPN, Yahoo Sports, and Fox Sports—give no indication that they subscribe to the industry’s best practices on sourcing.

The point of these best practices is to keep infestations of “anonymice,” as Politico’s Jack Shafer calls them, to a minimum, and when anonymous sources are necessary, to be as open as possible with readers about who the sources are and why they can’t be named.

At the AP and NPR, for example, information from an anonymous source can only be factual, not opinion or analysis. At The New York Times, where sourcing policies make for an evergreen ombudsman’s column, anonymity is explained with clunky, often tautological disclaimers like, “according to people with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision was not yet made public.”

 

 

It’s debatable how effective any of these policies are, but at the very least, they show that a news organization has thought about when and why it harbors anonymice.

These considerations seem completely absent from high-level sports writing. If the major sports networks and news sites have such policies, they don’t post them publicly, and they don’t pay them much heed.

This ESPN The Magazine piece from 2014, on Kobe Bryant, is a prime example of using anonymous sources to spread opinion. Henry Abbott quoted a string of unnamed NBA insiders, some of them providing valuable information, others giving takes on Bryant like, “The problem is, he’s just not as good as he thinks he is.” 

An explanation of a source’s anonymity almost never appears in competitive, scoops-driven sports reporting. Wojnarowski’s “league sources” is a common construction, as is the simple “sources say.” 

This story, from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst in January, is a classic of the genre. Its lede: “In an effort to protect players and referees, the NBA has banned midcourt sideline television cameras, effective immediately, sources said.”

 

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This is not an article about a trade rumor, a contract negotiation, or anything else that could be considered remotely sensitive. It is a story about a policy change that could easily have disseminated via press release. And yet, Windhorst and ESPN treat this news nugget as if it were whispered to them in a parking garage by a chain-smoking man in a trenchcoat.

ESPN does appear to have policies that forbid this type of reporting, though the network does not make its editorial handbook public. In 2011, Deadspin published a then year-old version of the company’s editorial guidelines. Its section on sourcing does include some of the industry best practices that ESPN so routinely ignores, such as granting anonymity only for “substantive information.” It also urges ESPN personnel to “try, as specifically as possible, to characterize the relationship of the source to the story.” It cautions against “terms such as ‘I’ve been told,’ and ‘ESPN has learned,’ ” both close cousins to the ubiquitous “sources say.”

ESPN’s public relations staff did not reply to a request for an interview, and an editor with Yahoo’s The Vertical did not respond to my questions about sourcing policies there.

The high tolerance for anonymice at the leaders in breaking sports news makes it hard for outlets with stricter standards to compete. Jason Stallman, sports editor at The New York Times, says in an email interview that the Times’ policy boils down to “we try really, really hard to avoid using anonymous sources.”

Stallman says he doesn’t think “the firehouse of transactions reporting” would be possible without widespread anonymity. The Times isn’t terribly interested in competing with ESPN on that type of reporting, he says, and even if it were, it couldn’t compete without compromising its standards on sourcing.

The type of scoop the Times sports section doesn’t pursue is what Jay Rosen, media critic and New York University journalism professor, would call an “ego scoop.” In 2012, Rosen wrote a blog post describing “Four Types of Scoops.” The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but the bulk of Rosen’s argument is in the first two items in his taxonomy: the “enterprise scoop” and the “ego scoop.”

The enterprise scoop is a real scoop, “where the news would not have come out without the enterprising work of the reporter who dug it out.” As an example, Rosen points to Dana Priest’s 2005 scoop for the Washington Post that revealed the CIA’s use of secret prisons.

The ego scoop, Rosen writes, is a story that “would have come out anyway—typically because it was announced or would have been announced—but some reporter managed to get ahead of the field and break it before anyone else. From the user’s point of view, there is zero significance to who got it first. This kind of scoop is essentially meaningless, but try telling that to the reporter who feels he or she has one.”

The entire system of sports news is set up to generate, and reward, ego scoops. Wojnarowski even pioneered a new type of scoop, which stands at the purest distillation of the ego scoop: the draft scoop.

At the NBA draft, teams are allowed five minutes to make first-round picks. During those five minutes, or less, Wojnarowski finds out which player the next team is going to select and then reports the impending pick on Twitter. It is a scoop that becomes obsolete in seconds, once the commissioner announces the pick on television.

In an email interview, Rosen agrees that most sports scoops are ego scoops. “That’s fundamentally different from a reporter who uncovers a domestic violence incident that had been swept under the rug by the league,” he says. “We should keep that distinction in mind. Journalists generally do not.”

Given the emphasis on ego scoops and being first, it’s implausible to expect sportswriters to wean themselves from anonymous sources. What they could do is be more honest with their readers about them. At the very least, “a league source” could be replaced by something like, “an executive with direct knowledge of the trade talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to team policy.”

If a sports news outlet decided to pull back the curtain a bit on its sources, its readers might be in for some surprises. In 2014, Kevin Draper wrote an article on Wojnarowski for The New Republic, in which Draper made a compelling case that Wojnarowski rewards his sources with friendly coverage and writes unflattering columns about people who don’t appear to have given him any information. He also identifies players’ agents as likely sources, apparently trading stories about obscure players that the agent wants published for bigger scoops about more newsworthy clients.

Outside of the sports sections, concern about anonymous sources ebbs and flows, cresting at its highest in the wake of a scandal like Jayson Blair’s fabrications or Judith Miller’s reporting on Iraqi’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, to use two examples from recent New York Times history.

“It’s cyclical,” says Hoyt Purvis, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas and the author of a recent paper on anonymous sources in daily newspapers. “What happens is, it becomes such an obvious problem that it has to be addressed, so we get these earnest pledges of avoiding or minimizing use, and that will go on for a while, and then it builds back up again, and we go through the same process again.”

In sports, there hasn’t yet been a real reckoning. It is, obviously, quite unlikely that the nation will be led to war based in any part on bad sports reporting. The other scenario, though—the Jayson Blair example—is a real possibility. Blair hung many of his lies on imaginary anonymice. His editors either didn’t know their names or didn’t know enough about them to verify their existence. If a sportswriter wanted to go full Blair, there’s no telling how long he could get away with it.

“There should be standards that people can rely on for credibility,” Purvis says. “That’s ultimately what it comes down to. I think over-reliance on anonymous sources hurts that credibility.”

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.