MONTREAL, QC. — In the ongoing consideration of the effects of social media, one unsolved puzzle is the extent to which digital technologies are changing human communications and interactions. And, with members of the media increasingly relying on Twitter to cover events of all kinds, it’s not surprising that this issue has been addressed in relation to reporting on sports in particular.
Think about the Manti Te’o hoax. Though it sounds alarm bells about the state of contemporary relationships, the fact that it demonstrates digital media’s potential to upend traditional sports journalism has drawn attention as well. Similarly, in a recent Globe and Mail piece on its impact on the hockey lockout, Bruce Dowbiggin argued that social media “emerged [from the lockout] as a powerful voice by defying the [NHL] and traditional media who have long brushed them off.”
In terms of new media and reporting on the world of hockey, are we witnessing fundamental change for the better or merely incremental modifications of that which existed before?
To explore this question, I canvassed the views of a handful of well-known mainstream hockey reporters. Based on their routine work that straddles real and virtual frontiers, the consensus among them is that digital media is promoting a significant evolution in hockey reporting, but not a revolutionary and uniformly positive transformation.
According to the reporters I spoke to, the most notable change introduced by social media is the speed with which breaking news can be disseminated. Though the rapid spread of information on platforms like Twitter results in reporters “working all the time” and in the “crazy” circulation of stories before precise details can be confirmed, another major consequence is the lost ability to deliver a scoop.
Larry Brooks, Rangers beat writer and hockey columnist for the New York Post, laments how Twitter has all but eliminated the comfort of knowing that he could be in front of his colleagues in reporting hockey news. “When there was just the newspaper and you had the story, you had it, you were ahead, you owned it,” Brooks said. “The importance of having something first has become diluted. It’s become minimized when [news] becomes public domain within a second of you having it.”
Though largely upbeat about reporting in the age of Twitter, Darren Dreger, one of TSN’s lead hockey reporters, agrees with Brooks. “The way it used to be, you would break news on TSN.ca and you would look like this insider God,” Dreger said. As it gives local beat reporters the ability to easily and quickly get news out to a national audience, “Twitter has given those hard working reporters a voice [in a way] that’s heavily impacted my ability to consistently break news.”
Aside from democratization making it more difficult for any reporter to reign as a leading news breaker, another popular assumption about speed and access via social media is that it allows fans to make unprecedented contributions to public discussions about hockey. While Brooks and Dreger report having relatively low levels of information exchange with average hockey fans, others describe how social media platforms can inject the voice of the fans into their work.
Elliotte Friedman, reporter and host on Hockey Night in Canada, not only makes an effort to interact with his readers on Twitter, but also acknowledges how the new media world has opened peoples’ eyes to the knowledge possessed by smart fans of hockey. “That’s the difference now,” Friedman said. “You can’t read everything, it’s absolutely impossible. But, there’s a lot of different places to get ideas. If I find something from ‘Billy the blog’ that I think is interesting, I’ll look at it and say, ‘is this something I can learn from?’”
Michael Grange, columnist for Sportsnet.ca and Sportsnet Magazine, echoes Friedman’s view on fan input. He describes how his Twitter followers can help him define the issues about which he writes. “If I find something I’m interested in enough to tweet about, oftentimes [it helps me] realize that it’s something that can be the seed of a column or story,” Grange said. “If you make that initial dip into the waters, and you get a bunch of retweets because people really jump on it, that’s a good sign that it may be something worth pursuing.”
While Friedman and Grange note that they’ll give credit to bloggers or fans whose ideas or work has influenced theirs, there’s an even stronger view that fan generated content on social media actually makes traditional hockey journalists accountable. Do the hockey reporters feel heat from the presence and outputs of fan writers on digital media platforms?
Aside from Michael Grange who notes that a wide range of voices enabled by Twitter and the blogosphere forces him to “define what [he] can do that’s distinct from what’s out there,” the hockey reporters disagree that fan activity on social media pushes them to be at the top of their game.
For Elliotte Friedman, the presence of many hockey writers simply means that hockey analysis is happening from multiple angles. As for accountability, Friedman says that competition from social media doesn’t affect his work at all. “If you want to be the best, the only pressure you get is from yourself,” Friedman said. “What other people do out there is irrelevant. All I look at it is that there are more interesting things to read now than there ever were before.”
Even though he was taken to task by player agent Allan Walsh on Twitter for allegedly being too close to the NHL in his lockout reporting, Darren Dreger says it goes too far to suggest that being publicly called out on social media pushes him to achieve a higher level of journalistic integrity. “The message that I was reporting may not have been one that Allan supported, but that’s fine,” Dreger said. “If he has an issue, he’s entitled to that, and that’s the beauty and the opinion that can flow on Twitter. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to sit back and agree with his slant.”
There is little evidence that these “mainstream” reporters feel pressure to correct their work as a result of being rebuked by educated fans, or the odd player agent, on social media.
One final issue pertains not strictly to the work of the reporters but to the question of what their vantage point revealed to them about whether social media gave fans the power to have their anger heard by, and influence, the NHL and the NHLPA during the lockout negotiations.
The reporters agree that social media gave the fans a voice during the lockout, and that the league and the players heard the anger, but some also believe that fan displeasure would have been delivered even in the absence of digital media. As for a bold suggestion, advanced by Allan Walsh, that social media gave the fans a seat at the bargaining table, Elliotte Friedman’s scepticism is representative. “There’s no doubt that the owners and players knew more about the fans than they ever did,” Friedman said. “But if [the fans] could have affected the negotiations, the lockout would have been settled a lot sooner.”
The absolute increase in the number of voices being carried by social media has changed the world of hockey reporting, but neither radically nor always for the better. At least one of the reporters feels that the multiplication of the number of messengers and the constant pressure to report brought on by social media have reduced the usefulness of the information being pumped out by his profession.
“We’re flooded with minutiae now,” Larry Brooks said. “When every topic gets an equal amount of attention [in social media] you’ve stopped making decisions about priorities. I don’t feel it’s necessary to write everything I know, I don’t think it’s necessary to write every word that somebody said. Most of the time, it’s not very important.”
There is a darker side to social media in hockey reporting where every line combination in practice gets tweeted and every non-development in a contract dispute becomes news. But, like Darren Dreger, most of the reporters believe that the digital “beast” is helping them deliver what their hockey-hungry readers seem to want. “During the lockout we had a direct connection to the hockey world, minute-by-minute. Times when we updated minute-by-minute. Without Twitter, we wouldn’t have been able to do that in the same type of fashion.”
“It’s not for everyone,” Dreger said, “but for fans captivated by it, that’s job done.”
Follow me on Twitter @AviGoldberg
About the Author (Author Profile)Avi Goldberg, Ph.D. teaches sociology full-time at Vanier College, an English language CEGEP in Montreal and part-time in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. Goldberg's teaching and research interests are in culture (including popular culture, sports, & digital communities and media) and political sociology. He intensely follows North American sports and talk radio and often injects a healthy dose of current topics in his stimulating lectures.
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