Caitlin Clark at a Indiana Fever press conference. April 17, 2024; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Fever’s Caitlin Clark, former Iowa Hawkeye standout and the no. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA draft, speaks Wednesday, April 17, 2024, during an introductory press conference inside the entry pavilion at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Mykal McEldowney-USA TODAY NETWORK

There are a lot of issues with how Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel interacted with new Indiana Fever draft pick Caitlin Clark during a press conference Wednesday. Doyel ended a conversation around Clark’s “heart hands” gesture to family with “Well, start doing it to me, and we’ll get along just fine.” And that drew a wide variety of criticisms.

Some of those criticisms included accusations that Doyel was “a pervert.” Others accused him of “creepy” and unprofessional behavior. And Doyel’s eventual apology also took a lot of criticism. That included comments on how he turned it into a column that started as defensive before a female colleague pointed out the problems with his approach.

There’s a whole lot to discuss with this situation. There have been many good points made on the larger issues here of inappropriate conversations with and questions for female athletes, and on how the limited representation of women in leadership and staffing roles in sports media factors into that. All of that deserves analysis in its own right.

However, there’s also an element to consider in terms of where and how this interaction took place, with that coming at an introductory press conference. And that’s worth examining in light of both the history of press conferences and their current status. That’s not an excuse for Doyel’s actions, which even he now admits were wrong. But there are wider takeaways here around press conferences, perhaps especially when it comes to women’s sports.

There is absolutely merit to the idea of a press conference. A one-on-one interview is of course better for journalists, but it’s generally not really feasible for top athletes or coaches to talk individually with every journalist who would like to speak to them, especially in a short timeframe after games. And in situations where there’s likely to be a lot of similar questions for a top player, the press conference format is far better for the subject.

A press conference can also often work just fine for journalists. Press conferences are often not as good as locker-room group interviews or individual interviews away from the field/court/rink, and that’s why fights for locker-room access matter. But there is absolutely value to getting some quotes from the coach or the star player, even if that’s in a group setting. And sometimes, there isn’t a huge dropoff from what they’ll say there and what they might say in a locker room or an individual setting.

But there’s a changing medium here, and Marshall McLuhan’s famous “The medium is the message” line has some applicability. In the media world, there used to be a significant difference between print, radio, and TV interviews: in most print interviews, the interviewer’s question wouldn’t even appear, while in radio, it might or might not be there (depending on clip editing), but wouldn’t carry an image, and in TV, there would be a full visual of the interviewer-interviewee exchange.

This led to some notable differences in interviewing techniques between media branches. A “bad” or poorly-phrased question that produced a great answer worked just fine in print (and still does for print articles where the interview footage isn’t public), but didn’t work as well for radio or TV. That meant that those in those latter mediums had to focus more on question construction, at least if they wanted to use a full exchange clip rather than just the response.

Now, though, question construction is now of much more importance for everyone at most press conferences. And that’s because of the widespread availability of video clips of press conferences. Even if a question is asked by someone who only intends to use the answer in a printed article, without spelling out the accompanying question in full, the video of the question and answer is likely available to others.

That becomes a particularly big deal in a case like Doyel’s. If the only record of this exchange was how he portrayed it in his first column, or even if there had been Twitter/X comments on it from other media in attendance, it likely would not have been spread as widely as it was. The video here illustrates the whole exchange, and that exchange doesn’t look great for Doyel.

Again, that’s not to excuse Doyel, who acted in a way thoroughly inappropriate for a press conference. And that’s not to say that inappropriate press conference behavior is new. Indeed, there are many stories of extremely inappropriate press conference behavior by sports media members dating back a century or more, many more significant than what happened here. But poor press conference behavior takes on new relevance in an era of press conference video.

That’s also not to say that Doyel’s press conference actions shouldn’t be viewable by the public not in attendance. It’s well-established at this point that most press conferences have video rolling in some way or form. And there’s a lot of merit to media and fans not able to be there in person being able to view that video. And the specific comments Doyel made here would have been inappropriate in a one-on-one interview too.

However, at least part of the issue here is about the format, and about Doyel not adapting to that. And Doyel’s apology column illustrates that. He wrote “I’m sort of known locally, sigh, for having awkward conversations with people before asking brashly conversational questions,” and mentions all the male athletes and coaches he’s done that with. And that’s certainly somewhat rewarded in this media era, where many outlets seem to want big personalities notable for exchanges with athletes. But “brashly conversational questions” often work a whole lot better in a one-on-one conversation, and a press conference is not that.

The thing is, too, if we go back to the print dictum of only the answer mattering, there are still ways to get that in this new era of televised press conferences. There certainly was a way to get that in terms of this specific discussion on Clark’s “heart hands” gesture. Doyel could have asked something innocuous such as “Caitlin, I’ve noticed you making this heart hands gesture after games: why do you do that?” That wouldn’t inject himself into the conversation, and could have provided what he needed for his column on Clark and her potential impact with the Fever. (And yes, we’re Monday morning quarterbacking here, and asking good questions is much more difficult in the moment, but it’s worth noting that the premise wasn’t all wrong here, just the execution.)

And to go back to the larger conversations about coverage of women’s sports, there are further factors to consider there with press conferences as well. Yes, there are absolutely inappropriate questions asked at press conferences for male athletes and coaches too. But it should be noted that that tends to be a smaller percentage of the press conference questions, and it tends to be a much smaller percentage of the general discussion around those athletes and coaches. And in terms of cross-gender questions, many were absolutely correct to note here that no female sports journalist could likely say anything like “Start doing it to me, and we’ll get along just fine” to a male athlete and expect to retain their job.

The conversations out of this about a need for increased female representation in sports journalism leadership and staffing are highly important. And systemic changes on those levels may wind up having the largest impact in avoiding these kinds of situations for female athletes down the road. But there are also actions men currently in sports journalism roles can take right now.

Part of that is recognizing that while “awkward conversations” and “brashly conversational questions” may not be always appropriate with male athletes or coaches either, they’re really worth avoiding (at least, if they’re these types of questions) when covering women’s sports. Professionalism always matters. But it’s worth recognizing that female athletes tend to face a significantly higher percentage of extremely personal and off-the-field criticism than male athletes, especially on social media.

And press interactions are one area where female athletes should be guaranteed professional treatment. That didn’t happen here. But if male journalists took some more time to ensure they’re coming in with a thoroughly professional approach ahead of interviewing female athletes, that might help.

And, to take this back to press conferences, a notable element of the always-televised (or at least assumed always-televised) nature of today’s press conferences is that actions there have consequences for interviewers as well as subjects. Of course, those aren’t always massive: even “silly questions” subjects take offense to have been well-received by others, and have sometimes led to notable answers.

But it’s definitely worth putting a fair bit of thought into what question to ask at a press conference. That’s especially true when the video of it may wind up going wide. And that’s perhaps even more notable when covering women’s sports, where even a higher level of professionalism than normal would certainly have some merits for both the interviewer and interviewee.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.