Jemele Hill, 30, is a sports columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, where she has worked since February 2005. Before moving to Orlando, Hill covered Michigan State football and basketball for the Detroit Free Press for six years. While in Detroit, she covered five Final Fours, four college football national championship games, the 2004 Summer Olympics and the NBA playoffs. Her first job out of college was as a general assignment reporter for the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer.
Liz Cox Barrett: As a rule, columnists/opinion writers tend to be older white men. You are none of the above. According to a recent study prompted by the Associated Press Sports Editors, you were the only black female sports columnist to be found at the 305 newspapers surveyed. What do you make of that (or, in other words, why is that)? What do you bring to the task?
Jemele Hill: I think I’m going to get a license plate that says “.3” on it. Never in my life did I think I’d be the answer to a trivia question. I’m not sure what to think of it, really. On one hand, it gives me a pretty special distinction. I’m proud of what I am and what I’ve become. I don’t mind being considered a “black columnist,” because I bring those experiences to my column. On the other hand, it’s sad. What does it say about our business that I’m the only one? I also won’t deny there is some pressure on me because I am the only one. That can be difficult to manage at times. This is my first columnist job, so I’m going to make mistakes. But because of my age and what I represent, I’m not sure if I have much latitude.
LCB: One of your peers, Jason Whitlock, a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, wrote a column a few months ago after attending a sports journalism gathering at the Poynter Institute. In the column, Whitlock wrote: “Sports writers don’t do near enough legitimate investigative journalism, and the reporting on the Barry Bonds-steroids issue and Duke lacrosse rape controversy are prime examples of the sports media’s failure to do our real job.” He also wrote that there was “considerable disagreement [at Poynter] about where newspaper and magazine sports writing needed to go to remain as relevant and influential as it was before the advent of ESPN, the Internet, TiVo and 24-hour sports-talk radio.” Some people, he wrote, “claimed that newspaper and magazine sports writing could be saved by further embracing the kind of descriptive, narrative writing that made John Lardner the envy of all sports writers in the 1930s and 1940s” while others “pushed for more opinion, analysis, information and entertainment.”
Your thoughts on both points?
JH: I’ll agree with Jason on his point about the Duke lacrosse situation. I’m not in Durham so I can’t completely speak to what reporters are or aren’t doing. The local paper, the News & Observer, has done the best job of the type of investigative reporting that Jason was talking about. They went door to door. Most of the national media didn’t bother to do that. They just jumped to conclusions and seemed more interested in offering an opinion than gathering the news.
I go back and forth about the steroids issue because short of drug testing players personally, how could that have been brought to light? If it weren’t for a federal investigation, would Barry Bonds have ever been caught? I don’t think so. The BALCO trial was the paper trail and once it was out there, reporters were pretty aggressive. And the vast majority of the public — including baseball writers — was just very ignorant about steroids and some of the other things guys were using.
But overall, I’m not sure if newspapers are as committed to investigative journalism because it takes time and money. With the way newspapers are downsizing, they don’t have the resources to give two or three people eight or nine months to report on one story. It’s just not going to happen at most places.
Sports sections just need to be more creative. The game story isn’t that relevant anymore. Sports is a 24-hour business and newspapers keep operating as if television doesn’t exist. We need to capitalize on what the other mediums can’t give you. ESPN is the most popular sports medium, but it only gives you snippets. Newspapers can still give you analysis and insight because we’re there when the cameras aren’t.