It’s not often that I’m asked to speak about sports journalism, so I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Gregory Strong, of The Canadian Press, about the ethical implications of remote sports reporting. You can read the story here. For obvious reasons, this kind of reporting became the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel was simply not possible and then, eventually, quite limited, so reporters did their best working from home, crafting their reports from television coverage or streamed feeds of games.
The fact that this is still so common, when travel seems to have more or less returned to normal, is troubling, not only to sports fans but to those of us concerned with journalism ethics. As I told Strong, my main concern is transparency. If a reporter is covering a game in Tampa from Toronto, the story should be clear about that.
Readers have been trained to expect that reporters have privileged access to people and places that they themselves do not have, like the ability to interview players in the locker room after a game and generally go behind the scenes and see what fans do not. That’s a big part of the value readers expect from good journalism. So, if reporters are in fact writing their stories from the newsroom, based on the same sources that readers have access to–live feeds of games on TV, streamed pre- or post-game news conferences, etc.–what are they offering readers that they couldn’t see for themselves?
I suspect this is partly why news outlets don’t want to draw attention to the fact that their reporters aren’t on location, for fear of raising these kinds of existential questions among their readers. Ethically, though, I still think they should. Reporters have an obligation to be transparent with readers about how and from where they get their information so that readers can judge their work accordingly and decide whether it’s worth paying for or not.
To my mind, this is the main reason why news outlets should be sending journalists to report on games in person as much as possible–they are more likely to get better information, interviews and details, which will contribute to better stories overall, which are more likely to satisfy readers and make the value proposition of what they’re paying for clear.