The story of the widening divide between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Josh Freeman took several strange twists over the last two days. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Monday night that Freeman was a participant in Stage One of the NFL's drug program. Freeman fired back Tuesday with a statement saying he agreed voluntarily to tests after mistakenly taking an ADHD medication (Ritalin) he didn't have a therapeutic-use exemption for. Head coach Greg Schiano denied he leaked the story. Writers like Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey (and the NFLPA and NFL executives he spoke with) criticized the leaking of this information. That brings up broader, interesting questions about sourcing and reporting in the sports world, and they're worth examining. First, here's the key part of Schottey's piece:
Sadly, however, many misunderstand what exactly was being reported. …
The rest of the Stage 1 language clearly spells out that this isn't about a player who has necessarily done anything wrong—just a player the NFL wants to keep an eye on for any number of reasons.
That premise, then, begs the question and provides a faulty conclusion: What did Freeman do wrong that put him on the league's radar?
In short, absolutely nothing. …
This is, at best, a severe breach of Freeman's privacy. At worst, one can connect the dots and see all of the other leaked info about Freeman in the past year or so and wonder what kind of ridiculous motives the leaking party might have had.
Schottey makes several good points there, but perhaps the most pivotal is his appeal to consider the source's agenda. That's an essential concept for both working in and consuming media. While "agenda" can be a loaded term these days, and many prominently (and usually falsely) claim to "have no agenda" the concept isn't necessarily bad, and it doesn't necessarily invalidate information. Really, the idea of agendas is just a different way to describe someone's motivation in a particular set of circumstances, and almost everyone has one or more agendas. Heck, journalists have agendas or goals in mind as well (arguably the most noble of which is the pursuit of straight journalism), fairly relaying important facts or perspectives to news consumers. But other agendas can come into play for some, including the pursuit of a high-profile, award-winning story, the desire to prove one's worth to the company or perhaps even the desire to present a story a certain way. An agenda alone doesn't invalidate anything, but it's crucial information to have in order to understand the context of someone's information or comments.
What's particularly curious in the Freeman case is that there doesn't seem to be obvious motivation for anyone to leak this. It seems highly unlikely that it came from Freeman's camp given his reaction (and the basic reality that most athletes don't want stories about them and "drug-testing program" out there), but the Buccaneers seemingly don't have a lot to gain from leaking information harmful to him either. Although Freeman's involvement in the program isn't actually all that massive, having him linked to drug testing could well reduce his already-limited trade value., which wouldn't seem useful for Tampa Bay. League or players' association sources also seem rather unlikely given the lack of real motivation for either group and criticism of leaking personal information both groups have offered since.
Unless Mortensen somehow got access to the larger list of players in the drug program, though (in which case, he'd probably have found more explosive information than this), the info on Freeman had to come from somewhere. While the obvious motivations don't return much, there are other ones to consider. Perhaps someone in the Tampa Bay organization leaked it, figuring that winning the PR war in "who mistreated who" in the Freeman situation was more important than preserving his trade value? Perhaps it came from another Buccaneers' player who had a grudge against Freeman and wanted to make him look bad? It's possible someone with the league, the PA or the drug program doesn't like Freeman either and wanted to bash him. Regardless, Mortensen and whatever ESPN colleagues or editors he discussed this with are likely the only ones who will ever know just how this story came out.
That raises the larger question of if Mortensen and ESPN were right to run this story. On one level, they were; Freeman being in the drug program has some informational value, and Mortensen was careful to qualify just how limited his involvement in the program was. A problem with reporting information like this is that the nuance is often lost when it's rebroadcast, though, whether that's on Twitter, on the ESPN ticker, on the radio or elsewhere. People will see "Josh Freeman in drug program" and assume the QB is in serious trouble.
Beyond that, though, there's the question of if Mortensen and ESPN were helping to fulfill a source's agenda in a way they shouldn't have. "Making Josh Freeman look bad" is a valid goal for the source, but it shouldn't be one for a news organization. In running a story like this (or, say, the Bo Pelini rant), any media organization has to weigh their goal (reporting the news) along with their source's goal (in this case, bashing Freeman), and decide if the journalistic value of the information's solid enough to justify doing something that may help an agenda they shouldn't be involved with. That's not an easy thing to judge, and there will be differing opinions on whether Mortensen and ESPN did the right thing here. From this corner, the thinking is that they landed on the right side of the divide, but it's close.
However, it's not worth calling for Mortensen to reveal his source even if you disagree with the call ESPN made to run this story. Yes, some will make the argument that "the source violated Freeman's privacy, so shouldn't his privacy be violated too?," but that's really a non-starter in media terms. The bounds of confidentiality (when the journalistic organization agrees to grant it) are all but sacred. Yes, some organizations will occasionally out a source that burned them with false information, but that's far from a widely-accepted practice, and it's a moot point anyway; Mortensen's source appears to have given him accurate information. The issue here isn't whether Freeman's in the drug program, as he doesn't dispute that; it's if that's something that's worth reporting.
Yes, anonymous sources can be problematic, but they're also such a pivotal part of getting sports news in this day and age that you can't do away with them. Anonymity can be a powerful tool for sources to fulfill their own agendas, though, and that's why it's critical for reporters and news outlets to consider the agendas involved; why are they receiving this information, and who will publication of it help or hurt? That can lead to tough calls, as it did in the Freeman case, and how reporters and outlets behave under those circumstances can drastically alter their own reputations. Thinking about the various agendas involved is important for media consumers, too. As the Latin saying goes, Cui bono? (Who benefits?) Keeping that question in mind is vital with stories like this.