The Sports Bloggers Vs. Sports Journalists Debate Now Has A Clear Winner, According To Snooty Academic Research
SportsGrid is not an academic journal and we certainly aren't peer reviewers in the field of journalism, but a few of us from time to time enjoy reading this stuff. Every now and then, we come across or are sent studies like this one from Penn State on the forever circular debate on sports bloggers versus journalists. The full conclusion - based on research around the coverage of a small detail regarding the 2009 group that invested in the St. Louis Rams - was that "the depth of coverage reflects the advantages professional journalists have over bloggers, including better training and more resources."
I was going to go FJM-style on the press release, but that's really not fair since it's a release and not the content itself, so I'd just be picking on someone in the communications office who got the task of getting the news out there. I don't want to focus on that; I want to question the research itself and potentially pre-conceived notions that led there.
Here are the premise and conclusions from the findings, and sorry for dumping a few paragraphs here, but it's worth the context it provides.
In a study of the way mainstream columnists and popular bloggers covered conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh's involvement in a partnership attempting to buy a professional football team, the researchers showed that journalists were more likely to include issues such as race and business in their columns, said Marie Hardin, associate director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism in the College of Communications.
Hardin, working with Erin Ash, a graduate student in communications, examined approximately 100 columns and blog posts mentioning Limbaugh's membership in an investment group that was attempting to buy the St. Louis Rams in 2009. Limbaugh's participation in the group was controversial because of his conservative politics. He also was forced to resign in 2003 as an NFL commentator for ESPN after making racially charged comments about Donovan McNabb, a black quarterback who was then playing for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Hardin said they picked the Limbaugh story because the subject matter went beyond the confines of sports reporting.
After reviewing columns from "major newspapers, magazines and websites, such as USA Today, the New York Times and ESPN.com" and "posts from the top 25 general sports blogs and top 10 NFL blogs as ranked by The Sports Media Challenge", the researchers were able to make the conclusion that the traditional journalists were significantly more likely to mention Limbaugh's past comments. That word - "significantly" - was their word in the release, and it is always worth noting that "significantly" is not a word treated lightly by academics, if I recall some past graduate school work.
I'm assuming the actual metrics that led to the conclusion are within the journal release (which doesn't appear to be available online at this time, and since it's a journal, it likely won't happen any time soon without a password). I don't have them, so I can't dive deeper into what "significantly" means here. Was it a percentage of blogs reviewed that mentioned it versus traditional stories reviewed in their own context? Where's the selection process?
Regardless, you have to wonder what the research questions to begin some of these studies were, because it seemed like it was setup on a premise designed to get the desired result. For example, what are the chances the original phrasing went something like, "Do professional journalists or sports bloggers wearing sweatpants in their parents' basement provide deeper and broader coverage of stories?"
Here's why I'm being a pain-in-the-ass and skeptical. The study author noted in the conclusion:
"Professionals have more time and better access to sources and background," said Hardin. "An amateur blogger working in their spare time just wouldn't have these types of resources."
I don't even think it's a hidden bias, because that sentence appears within two lines of the sentence about the top 25 general sports blogs and even mentions Deadspin and the Big Lead by name. Among other points, I simply want to put it this way: those are far from amateur bloggers. I mean, if I researched it and provided a link about how much time that these writers contributed to their craft - full-time jobs, in those cases, including weekends - wouldn't I be bunking the point?
Perhaps the lack of inclusion of the 2003 statement in question was just lack of relevance, or it was outside the agenda of the blog. For example, that Rush Limbaugh-Rams story was from early October 2009. Maybe sports bloggers dedicated their resources and screen space to things like the Detroit Lions finally winning for the first time in 19 games, the beginning of the baseball playoffs, the start of the LeBron Free Agency Watch, a college football player announcing on College Gameday that he was now cancer-free, and I'm sure many others.
The real study here that would be interesting is the comparison that bloggers discussed in the stories versus what traditional journalists do. This is something that Pew releases on a weekly basis, comparing the times when traditional media takes a different focus over blogs. There are many times when they match up. There are more times when they don't. It's a different medium that invokes different reactions and thus generates different content - mainly on the benefit of specificity for the audience that can't necessarily be afforded in broad publication.
I know there is more to the story of what makes bloggers and journalists different than one news story and the details in it; we can all be better about avoiding binary debates like this. SportsGrid Literature Review is now over.
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