Sources, bad news and how reporting actually works

One of the sad realities of our world is that we assume everyone is like us. Be it our religion, socioeconomic standing, politics or sexual preference, we engage with the world around us through a particular lens. This lens is unique to us, honed and refined over the course of countless interactions and experiences.

I remember feeling this way about reporting when I started blogging back in 2014.

I wasn’t blogging from my mom’s basement, but I may as well have been. I didn’t really have any contacts in and around the league – the only football people I knew were fans like me. I could give my opinion on players, teams, and roster moves, but that was about it. The only tools I had to write about the league were my own observations and the same web resources that anyone can access – social media, message boards, stat pages, etc.

This is how I assumed all reporters worked – alone, free from the input of others, and engaging mostly in speculation. Report as soon as possible and then pray for accuracy.

Over the past four years, this has all changed. I’ve worked hard to develop relationships with people in and around the CFL who have helped me in my work as a writer.

I’ve written almost 300 pieces for 3DownNation since joining the website in May of 2015 and done a fair share of radio work over the past eighteen months. I even break the occasional story through sources of my own. My biggest scoop so far was probably the CFL’s decision to end its relationship with Reebok prior to the 2016 season, though I recently was the first to report Caleb Holley’s contract extension with Saskatchewan.

This hardly makes me Adam Schefter, but it’s something. And I would never have achieved any of my success without the help of a handful of journalists who were willing to show me how the business works over the past half-decade.

Through the generosity of these seasoned professionals, I’ve enjoyed enough behind-the-scenes access to gain a reasonable understanding of how sports journalism works. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I believe I know enough to educate fans who may not have an understanding of how the industry functions.

Possibly the most eye-opening journalistic experience I’ve had came this past March when I had the opportunity to spend three days with the person who breaks more CFL stories than anyone: 3DownNation’s very own Justin Dunk.

It was CFL Week in Regina. I’d never met Dunk in person, though we’d texted a fair bit in the past and I’d twice interviewed him for my podcast.

One of the first things that struck me while spending time with Dunk – aside from the fact that he’s an exceptionally nice guy – is that he’s constantly on his phone. There are plenty of outgoing calls and texts, but most of them are incoming. Players, coaches, personnel people, and agents from around the league are in constant communication with Dunk about a wide variety of topics.

I can remember working alongside Dunk and 3DownNation editor Drew Edwards for an afternoon in Regina when Dunk took his first of what seemed like two dozen phone calls in the period of three hours. It was clear he and the person on the other end of the line knew each other well – the caller was doing most of the talking, but the pair were chuckling throughout the conversation. Two minutes later Dunk hung up.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“A player agent,” he said. “I didn’t put his guy in the top round of my mock draft, so he called to give me a hard time.”

Dunk’s phone rang again five minutes later. Again, he spent most of the call listening to the voice on the other end of the line.

“Who was that?” I asked after the call was complete.

“A CFL general manager,” said Dunk. “He’s trying to move a veteran before the draft, but nobody likes his contract. He’s going to have to cut him.”

Not long after the draft, the player was released.

After the third or fourth call I stopped asking Dunk who had phoned. I’ve never been called more than twenty times in an afternoon, but I quickly came to realize that this was just an average day for Justin Dunk.

It’s little wonder, then, that Dunk gets the number of scoops that he does. Dunk is close with people in every CFL city and lots of football people south of the border. He’s not in the business of speculation, guesswork, or creative writing. Dunk is in the business of relationships – cultivating them, nurturing them, and using them to report about the CFL.

We eventually took a break from writing for dinner, during which Dunk turned the conversation to the upcoming season.

“Who do you think is going to be the bottom team in the East this year?” he asked.

“Toronto,” I said. “I don’t like their defence (this was before the Argos added Marcus Ball, Cleyon Laing, and Bear Woods) and hiring Trestman means nothing if Ray doesn’t have anyone to throw to.”

“They will soon,” said Dunk.

“Who?” I asked.

“S.J. Green is going to be in double blue this year,” he said. “And the dude is going to ball out.”

Green, at the time, was a 31-year-old has-been with a ruined knee and a contract that far outweighed his value. Six months later, Green is the CFL’s third-leading receiver and arguably the biggest reason that Toronto will be hosting a playoff game next month.

This was late March, yet Dunk didn’t report the story before the trade was formally announced by the Argos in the third week of April. I recently asked Dunk why he never reported the Green trade if he knew it was going to happen.

“Some people told me it was likely,” he said. “I had a strong idea it was going to happen, but I honestly forgot to follow-up with whatever else was going on at the time taking my attention away.”

This is common practice for Dunk and people of his ilk – nothing gets reported unless 100 percent certainty can be attained.

This is why I take the word of trusted, reputable reporters so seriously – rumours and speculation aren’t reported unless they are clearly labelled as such. When a journalist reports something as fact, he or she stakes his or her professional reputation on that report being accurate.

Arash Madani, one of the country’s top sports journalists, recently had his integrity called into question when he reported that a Saskatchewan coach instigated, then prolonged, Monday’s fight between Duron Carter and Sam Williams.

Madani’s critics seemed bewildered by the fact that he could somehow have knowledge of the incident despite being in Chicago to cover the NLCS for Sportsnet.

What these people may not realize is that Madani, like Dunk, is as dialed into the CFL as anyone. He has sources in every CFL city and has contacts dating back to his days of working for the Ottawa Renegades as a recent Bishop’s graduate back in the early-to-mid 2000s.

For these reasons, Madani doesn’t need to be at Roughrider practice to know what’s going on at New Mosaic Stadium. Neither would you or I if the right people from in and around the league were willing to confide in us.

One of the issues that clouded Madani’s report was the number of newspeople at Monday’s Roughrider practice who didn’t report the fight. This gave birth to a sentiment shared by many people on social media following Madani’s report.

“Our local reporters didn’t see a scrap,” wrote the skeptics, “why should I believe Madani when he’s all the way in Chicago?”

For the reasons outlined above, perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “why should I believe Madani’s report?”, but instead, “why aren’t our local reporters getting to the bottom of important team stories?”

In defence of the Saskatchewan-based reporters who missed Tuesday’s fight – one of whom, CJME’s Arielle Zerr, has written some excellent pieces for 3Down – practice is boring.

Even for me, someone who watches all 81 regular season CFL games every year, sitting through an entire practice is a chore. The drills are repetitive, the music is lousy, and it’s tough to hear anything being said on the field from the available viewing locations.

The only remotely interesting part about taking in practice is getting to conduct interviews with players and coaches when the session is over. Even then, post-practice interviews rarely elicit interesting and honest answers from football people. Teams are paranoid about giving away too much information at the best of times – when someone has twelve microphones shoved in their face at once, they’ll often default to a cliché or non-answer.

Check out the transcript from Chris Jones’ post-practice scrum on Tuesday. An argument could be made that Jones failed to satisfactorily answer even one question. That’s not me being critical, either – if I were facing the media for the first time after a controversy, I’d choose my words carefully, too.

This brings us back to the importance of having and developing sources – people who will pass along the real and unvarnished truth to reporters that they trust. Without sources, cutting through team rhetoric is difficult, if not impossible.

This is also why it is imperative that a reporter never reveal his or her sources. Revealing a source would have potentially devastating consequences for both parties – being identified could lose a source his or her employment, while a journalist who sold out an informant would risk never getting another scoop. Demanding a reporter reveal his or her source to validate the quality of his or her report demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how journalism works.

And thank goodness we have independent journalists who are willing to tell it like it is. With more and more teams hiring staff to produce their own content, fans need to show support – not hostility – when someone reports something unflattering about their favourite team.

I believe today’s media landscape has also conditioned fans to reject negative stories. Passion is a great thing, but it has a tendency to cloud the judgement of fans when responding to bad news about their club. When fans aren’t used to reading negative stories, they become easier to dismiss.

Remember the Caleb Holley story I mentioned earlier? Despite the fact that I am not a full-time journalist, I have yet to see a single person question my report. My report did not name a source – anonymous or otherwise – and the Riders have yet to confirm it. One would think my report was ripe for criticism given these factors, yet I’ve received none.

Why?

As far as I’m concerned, there is only one reason: it was a positive story. Caleb Holley is a talented young receiver who signed a reasonable contract to remain in Saskatchewan through 2018, a place where he genuinely enjoys playing. Rider fans wanted to see Holley stay in green and white through next season and his contract extension means they’ll get their wish. So why question the report?

This sets a dubious double-standard for journalists working in today’s media industry. Making an erroneous report shouldn’t be excused because it is well-received by fans; likewise, a report shouldn’t be dismissed simply because its contents are unpalatable to a particular fan base. All reports should be held to the same standard, whether they make fans happy or not.

It is my hope that this piece will help educate fans who, like me four years ago, aren’t aware of the way in which reputable sports journalists conduct their business. I would be offended if someone who lacked a basic understanding of my industry questioned the quality of my work, a sentiment I believe most professionals would share.

Emotions get the best of all of us sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to educate ourselves and become better, more understanding people. I have and continue to do so on a daily basis. I’d love to see you come along for the ride.

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