Who access is for, and why it matters
We're all talking about Osaka, as we should be. But what the NFL is doing is the real story when it comes to access in sports journalism.
Press conferences aren’t for sports journalists.
As we continue to discuss the Naomi Osaka story and its potential impact on the future of sports journalism, let’s start there.
They’re for the leagues, the teams, the schools, the bodies that run tournaments. They are a way to centralize the message that is presented to media, a way to manage reporters. Rather than have reporters wandering around a locker room, asking questions of whomever they want, teams bring selected players to talk to all the media at once, so that everyone has the same quotes to deal with and the overall narrative can be easily controlled.
My friend and co-author Michael Mirer made this point this week:
Nathan Kalman-Lamb @nkalambHere’s a thought: what if journalists had to earn a relationship with athletes just like any other source?
The press conference is also unnatural. The coaches and athletes are sitting at a table, sometimes on a stage, in front of a room full of people who are looking at them. There are bright lights, big intimidating TV cameras, reporters pointing iPhones at them, recording every word they say. But as my friend Jim Carty said this week, most press conferences are … fine. They’re unremarkable for all involved, and in fact they can be useful for reporters.
However, given the choice, every sports reporter would rather do interviews one-on-one (or in small groups) rather than in a press conference setting.
Which is why the bigger access news comes from the NFL, as reported in the Washington Post:
The NFL is expected to keep its locker rooms closed to reporters when teams report to training camps and begin playing preseason games this summer, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions, a sign that restrictions placed on sports media during the coronavirus pandemic might stretch into the fall or beyond.
The NFL training camp protocols are probably a strong indication of what’s in store for the regular season scheduled to begin in September, though negotiations are still ongoing. That means that even as fans return to stadiums and as the country as a whole moves toward normalcy, NFL reporters probably will not be roaming locker rooms during the week of practice and after games, as was custom before the pandemic.
The Osaka story is important. It marks an important inflection point in the relationship between athletes and media, one where an athlete prioritizes not their business interests but their personal well being. It’s a lot harder to be upset with a young woman of color asking for space for her mental health. It’s an important story.
But in the specific discussion of access in sports journalism, the NFL’s decision is much more important.
Aside from the petty reaction of a few white men, I think most people in the business are fine with Osaka’s decision, or at least understand it. The First Amendment, as Bob Woodward once wrote, includes the right not to talk. If a given person doesn’t want to talk to reporters, fine.
It’s when leagues, organizations, teams, schools, shut down access to players that sports journalism as best practiced becomes threatened.
What research into the routines of sports journalism has shown is that it’s not about the actual access to the sources for daily quotes that journalists value. It’s about the building of relationships.
You hear that over and over again when you talk to sports reporters. Reporters value being able to build relationships with the players they cover. That’s where the best news comes from, and that’s where the best stories come from.
Journalists see this not just as a way to make their jobs easier but also to allow them to do their jobs better. To tell the stories that fans really care about. To break the stories that are interesting to them. The cornerstone of fairness in sports journalism are these relationships, the accountability is inherent in a relationship.
When sports journalism is done fully through impersonal press conferences or Zoom calls, without that access, those relationships are harder to build. Media coverage becomes much more adversarial, much more “us vs. them.”
Naomi Osaka is raising important issues. We should be talking about them.
But if we’re talking about the future of sports journalism, the NFL’s moves are the real story.
This week at Sports Media Guy
These are media practices built for a time of scarcity, not abundance. These are media practices built by white reporters and editors that reflect an unbalanced power dynamic. These are media practices built to help reporters do their jobs - and by extension, help make them money and their companies money.
This story gets to the heart of the power relationships in sports, the gendered nature of sports coverage, the racial nature of sports coverage, our understanding of mental health.
The Other 51
The fifth anniversary of my little podcast about writing is coming next week. I’ve got a fun episode planned for next week — my very first guest, Dr. Molly Yanity, returns. Subscribe at the links below to be the first to get it.
John Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New York Times and author of the upcoming anthology, “Sidecountry,” joins Brian to talk about his career as a writer and reporter.
John talks about the process of putting together the anthology of his sports writing from The Times, and what it’s like to be a reporter who never re-reads his stories to go back over his past work. He talks about how he remembers the experience of writing and reporting his stories much more than the stories themselves. He also talks about what life as a reporter is like after winning a Pulitzer, what it’s like when one of stories becomes a verb, and the backstory of how Snowfall became a multimedia piece.
He and Brian also do a deep dive into his journalistic philosophy, “I try to write stories you didn’t know you wanted to read.”