The danger of intentional biases when covering a local sports team

Another NHL season is underway and the Calgary Flames are hoping to replicate last season’s success of making the second round of the playoffs.

Prior to last season, it had been five long seasons that the Flames and their fans had to endure without any playoff action. From 2009 to 2014, mismanagement, an aging roster and a denial to rebuild the team were the causes of this prolonged absence from the post-season.

One thing that fuelled the denial was the local coverage by the media, which featured intentional bias.

The term “homer” refers to home broadcasters who advocate for the team they cover.

The sports media in Calgary has been soft on the Flames by never really telling it how it is after every disappointing season.

Fair and balanced sports reporting means representing both sides.

Radio show host, Pat Steinberg of the FAN 960 says when you’re a regional broadcaster your audience is the Calgary area, and that you have to appease your audience.

“The vast majority of people listening to us are cheering for the Flames, so there is a natural bias and an intentional bias.”

Steinberg went on to say that people are tuning into the Fan 960 for a reason,
“We are Calgary Flames radio, we make a big deal when the Flames win games, when they go deep in the playoffs. Our radio station builds promos around big moments for the team.”

There is a danger when it comes to that intentional bias. The audience isn’t getting a clear picture with what’s exactly wrong with the team. It could be sub-par goaltending, lack of scoring or no depth on the blue line.

“Athletes are also professionals and they realize that criticism comes with the territory.”                                         – Sandra Prusina, 660 and Sportsnet reporter 

Jason Botchford, a blogger for the Province a Vancouver based newspaper, isn’t afraid of calling out players, coaches and management. In an article, The Provies, he points out how this core of Vancouver Canucks players has underperformed in the playoffs.

“The new goalie didn’t help. The new coach didn’t help. The Kesler return didn’t help. It may have made things worse; those are all fair things to focus on. But this core’s playoff record in the past 15 games is 2-13. “

That’s an example of telling it like it is.

But when you’re covering the same team for a long period of time, it’s likely you’ll forge bonds with members from that team.

Sandra Prusina of 660 News and Sportsnet, says it can be tough to call attention to an athlete’s flaws when you’ve gotten to know them. But at the same time you’ve got to recognize you have a job to do.

“Athletes are also professionals and they realize that criticism comes with the territory.”

For Steinberg that moment came when former general manager Jay Feaster was fired.

“That was a tough thing for me to [report], you get to know a guy, you build a rapport with the guy,” says Steinberg. “Your personal feelings and human side of it comes into it.”

Steinberg says when he’s in situations like that he discloses that he may be biased.

“To admit to the people who are listening that you’re not going to be objective as you like, I think that is the way you get around it.”

Professor of communication studies David Taras says regional listeners are tuning in for a reason. “Your listeners get to know you, and they turn to you cause they know where you’re coming from.”

What it boils down to is if you’re a regional broadcaster or home broadcaster like The Fan 960, who reports firstly and fore mostly on the Flames, you have to give your audience what they want.

If you’re a national broadcaster like Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada or Jason Botchford, who has no ties to the Canucks organization, you can let your punches fly. There’s also a reason why viewers, listeners and readers are tuning into you as well. To hear it like it is.

tsolway@cjournal.ca

Photo by Renée Johnson via Flickr creative commons licence

The editor responsible for this article is Ashley Grant, agrant@cjournal.ca