One of the key takeaways from the Manti Te'o saga was that good work will get noticed regardless of where it appears: Deadspin obviously had a substantial profile within the online sports media world well before Te'o, but their incredible scoop that Te'o's girlfriend didn't exist got the site attention in a much wider realm. With that attention comes criticism, and it seems that some of the critics don't seem to quite get how Deadspin operates, or just what they should and shouldn't be taken to task for.
The latest case in point comes from a piece posted on SportsJournalism.org (affiliated with Indiana University's National Sports Journalism Center) Tuesday, where Manny Randhawa interviews Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs about the site's Te'o coverage. It's an interesting read, both for Randhawa's questions and Craggs' responses, but in the end, it leaves several problematic impressions: first, it suggests that Deadspin's coverage of the Te'o situation broke clear journalism rules, and second, it seems to paint the site as a bunch of renegades in complete opposition to traditional media. From this corner, neither of those ideas seems particularly true, but they seem to stem from some misconceptions about journalism as a whole and Deadspin's role within journalism.
It's worth pointing out that there isn't a clear, universally accepted definition of what exactly constitutes journalism. Yes, there are certain things that most would agree qualify (for example, it would be tough to find many arguing that a straight news New York Times story isn't journalism), but there are plenty of debates ongoing about just what does and doesn't count. Journalism is a wide and quirky field that has featured such diverse approaches as those of Bob Woodward and Hunter S. Thompson, and it's a field that even the courts have trouble defining. There are worthwhile debates going on over the place of blogs, the place of aggregation, the place of analysis and more, and perhaps most importantly, there's no clear entry barrier. Some notable names in the field have spent six years or more picking up journalism degrees, while others have jumped right in and worked their way up. Thus, because journalism is such a diverse field containing such a wide swath of people, it's difficult to make sweeping generalizations about who exactly is a journalist and how exactly they should act.
That doesn't mean journalistic standards don't exist, but it does mean that there are only a few that can really be said to be followed close to universally. For example, plagiarism will get you in massive trouble at any reputable outlet, as will improper attribution or misrepresentation of quotes, as will inaccurate reporting of facts. There are a few more things most would agree on, but beyond that, there are a wide range of issues that are still intensely debated, and ones where different outlets each choose their own tactics. This is particularly shown in Randhawa's interview with Craggs, particularly where he quotes Washington Post writer Erik Wemple's line that reaction from alleged mastermind Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, Te'o and Notre Dame counts as "critical components." The inference from Wemple's piece and the way Randhawa cites it in his question to Craggs is that publishing a story without reaction from one side is somehow a universally-condemned journalistic failure. Nothing could be futher from the truth.
Yes, comments from those figures are notable. We all paid attention to Notre Dame's response to the Deadspin story, Te'o's interviews with Jeremy Schaap and Katie Couric and Tuiasosopo's appearance on Dr. Phil. That doesn't make quotes from them journalistically required in order to run a story. Many outlets do have policies where a subject of a story has to at least be asked for comment before the story can run, but that isn't a universal standard. However, according to Craggs, Deadspin did in fact ask several of these people and institutions for comment before publication, but they declined. That would clear most stories for publication at almost any media outlet (which makes ESPN news chief Vince Doria's comments that his network needed to talk to Te'o in order to run the story seem particularly ridiculous). It can be seen as a potential journalistic problem if you don't give one side any chance to present their reaction to a story (although, again, that isn't a universal standard), but that isn't even what happened here. Deadspin reached out, the people involved declined comment, and they ran the story. That's hardly something that would be universally condemned in the journalism world.
Changes in the media world have affected the importance of getting that on-the-record comment in the first place, too. With print, radio, or television, a story is much more of a standalone product; if more information comes out after publication, it can't be addressed until the next edition or the next broadcast. The famous "Stop the presses!" line doesn't have anywhere near as much relevance in an Internet world, where initial posts can be quickly updated with reactions and other posts exploring new angles can appear on the same site within hours. It's worth pointing out that Deadspin devoted substantial time and space in subsequent posts to reactions from Te'o and Notre Dame as well. Much of the coverage of this has focused on Deadspin grabbing the Te'o story as if it's something only they could do because of their loose fit within the sports media world, but that's far from true. The journalistic techniques Deadspin employed on this story were rigourous, and the eventual information they dug up could have been published at many, many reputable outlets. Making this into "the loose standards of websites let them do what we couldn't!" is patently false and serves little purpose.
The one area where Deadspin is particularly getting flak over their Te'o coverage is their decision to include a quote from a Te'o associate (who they later identified as Al Vaosa, who's involved in this in many quirky ways) saying he was "80 percent sure" Te'o was in on the hoax. To a very limited degree, this is fair; many now believe Te'o was duped, so that quote stands out upon re-reading. However, to say that its omission is irresponsible journalistically and only something Deadspin would have done is a step way too far. For one thing, this is not an incorrect fact. It's an opinion expressed by a source. You can find opinions from connected sources (anonymous or named) in all manner of journalistic pieces, from news to business to sports. Some of those opinions inevitably are proven wrong, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't have been published; they were an estimation of what could happen, not a clear declaration that something would happen.
This is particularly true when it comes to probabilities, too. For example, many credit New York Times stat guru Nate Silver with correctly "calling" the U.S. election for Obama, but his final prediction was that Obama had a 90.9 percent chance of victory. Thus, in 9.1 percent of cases, Mitt Romney would have been expected to win. Media coverage in those cases inevitably would have been "Silver Proved Wrong" but that's not really the case. Probability estimates are generally an attempt to predict a single scenario's outcome based on likelihoods, which are frequently calculated by running multiple scenarios. Obviously, it's doubtful that Vaoso worked out the exact probabilities of Te'o being involved in the hoax, but an 80 percent comment is just 80 percent. It's not an infalliable declaration of one outcome. (Moreover, consider that most of the evidence thus far in favour of Te'o not being involved comes from the testimony of himself and Tuiasosopo, and both have significant motive to make this seem like Te'o got fooled; it's not necessarily completely proven that Te'o had zero involvement in this.)
Moving beyond the specific critiques Randhawa presents, though, it's easy to see his questions (and the sections he quotes from other critics of Deadspin's handling of the Te'o story, including Wemple and The Boston Globe's Jim McBride) as representing a media world that isn't quite sure what to do with Deadspin. That was obvious from the last question of the Q&A when Randhawa tried to trip up Craggs with a comment from Deadspin that contained a "racial epithet" as an example of the site's loose standards. Craggs' response was a fitting example of the journalistic establishment grasping at straws with how to view Deadspin:
Q: With respect to the reporting on the Te’o situation, Deadspin’ s post “ESPN Reports Ronaiah Tuisosopo [sic] Confessed to Te’o Hoax in December. Was Te’o Involved? Evidence Varies” includes a reader comment at the bottom that reads:
“Look at these f—ing Samoans, with the stripes on their face. They look so sweet, but they lie and now they’re boxed in. I wish they’d take their coconut and go elsewhere. Eh, f— it. Give me three of them plus two Thin Mints.”
This is just one of several comments laced with profanities or racial epithets appearing on Deadspin’s site. Does Deadspin have a policy on the detection and removal of offensive reader comments? If so, what is that policy and where is it displayed?
A: You’re really obsessed with policies, aren’t you? We moderate our comments to the best of our abilities. The commenting system is designed to float the best responses to the top. Bad comments get buried (and occasionally deleted outright).
The comment you cited above does not contain a “racial epithet,” by the way. It’s a joke about Girl Scout cookies. Are there any actual racial epithets you’d like to bring to our attention?
While Deadspin's Te'o coverage fits right in with the standards of many major outlets, other pieces they regularly run don't (whether you're talking about Drew Magary's oft-profane and raunchy Funbag pieces or A.J. Daulerio's decision to run Brett Favre genitalia pictures without the consent of the source who sent them to him). Perhaps the Craggs Q&A is applying the apprehension towards those pieces and misplacing it towards the Te'o piece. It's clear though that many in journalism can't picture a site that does all of the above. Ironically, perhaps the words of ESPN President John Skipper regarding criticism of Bristol can be best used to describe its rival – "Deadspin is not monolithic."
For one thing, it makes the most sense to judge individual pieces on their merits rather than strictly on an outlet's overall reputation. Most outlets have some great stuff and some terrible stuff. Agreeing or disagreeing with Deadspin's overall approach (or specific decisions they've made on other stories) is perfectly valid, but it isn't a great reason to overlook what they achieved with the Te'o story. Heck, long-time adversary ESPN credited Deadspin for that report, as they should. Beyond that, journalism's a wide world with a whole range of different standards and approaches, and there's plenty of room in it for much of what Deadspin does. Media outlets need to recognize that Deadspin doesn't necessarily always operate the same way as everyone else, but that isn't case to dismiss them out of hand or conclude they're violating some universal standard when they aren't. Trying to attack or criticize Deadspin's Te'o reporting from a journalistic flank is a relic from the age of mainstream media versus blogs age. The SportsJournalism.org Q&A with Tommy Craggs shows a section of the media that still misses the forest for the trees. Like it or not, Deadspin's an important part of our modern sports media world. Ignoring or criticizing them isn't going to make them go away.