Friday, January 3, 2014

The Access in Access

The 2014 Olympics are approaching fast, which means that it's time for the rosters for the hockey tournament to be revealed. USA Hockey used the stage of the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor to reveal theirs, with all of the pomp and circumstance that entailed. The stories however didn't focus on the snubs, goaltending controversies, or possible line combos and defense pairings. It centered instead on a story written by ESPN's Scott Burnside on the selection process. It contained some quotes that had a bit of fire to them about Bobby Ryan, who ended up not making the final roster (for now). The quotes themselves ended up eclipsing all other stories about the US team, but brought up bigger questions about access and embedding for reporters in those situations. The hockey had to wait, so it figures that this scribe would do the same thing... begrudgingly.

The storm really kicked up when Nick Kypreos, insider for Sportsnet in Canada, made comments on "Hockey Central" regarding the article Burnside wrote. He said that the "onus is on Burnside to not publish things that will damage players". Predictably, most who are media and journalism-savvy became enraged, as well they should have. But the story goes deeper than just "defending players" (even though that would have meant going against all journalistic tenets- and for what it's worth Kypreos is a former player), it goes to the question of access. As consumers of media and all sports, fans have more access to players than ever before due to social media, the hunger to get more stories out faster than ever before, and more programs like 24/7 that give us new insights on the lives of players behind the scenes (although this year's edition felt more forced than earlier ones). Access is now of paramount importance in order for the eyeballs to go to your story or show. What Burnside, and Kevin Allen of the USA Today, got was unprecedented access to the selection process for USA Hockey, with a few translucent strings attached. Those strings turned out to be hung in the wrong place, or hung where only one person could see them, since the Kevin Allen story about the same selection process is noticeably more restrained. Whether USA Hockey did have a set of "guidelines" about what should or should not be published is an open question, but if they did exist, the punishment for failing to meet them clearly was not severe enough. But journalism is about sniffing around the boundaries anyway, and the Burnside piece is a paragon of access journalism that few have been able to write recently. So while Kypreos is wrong about what a journalists job is, his comment has sparked debate and question. But it does trigger in the mind's eye something to ponder about access in general, thanks to another similar story involving another US National team.

In March of last year, Brian Straus, then of the Sporting News, wrote an article using anonymous sources talking about divisions in US Men's National Soccer Team camp that caused a furor and the whole of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure in question. That article is largely similar to the Burnside piece, although the main difference in the sourcing provides a good context. That article was widely panned, and the team eventually went on a run afterwords where they failed to win only twice up until September. The quotes are fascinating in equal measure:

When talking about Carlos Bocanegra not starting in Honduras, a player said: "(Jurgen) already broke Carlos' heart. Why drive the knife in and twist it?" Compare this to a member of the selection committee talking about Bobby Ryan, with no name mentioned. He said, "I think he's sleepy. I think he skates sleepy." These quotes are spoken anonymously, and are nearly equally disparaging. As the stories go on further, the quotes get more disparaging, but the sourcing differs. About Jurgen Klinsmann, a source called the players, "overtrained and undercoached", a sentiment is echoed in further quotes. When talking about Bobby Ryan, his former GM, and frequent lightning rod, Brian Burke said, "He's not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary. It's never going to be in his vocabulary. He can't spell intense." Hyperbole aside, these comments seem equally disparaging, but one became the match that sparked massive debate, and the other (and others like it) became part of a motivational mechanism.

The Straus piece fails in the same way that the Burnside piece works because of the access. It's a double-edged sword that journalists have to use correctly or else be beheaded by (as Straus would later learn). Both pieces are insights into otherwise closed ecosystems that the general fan would never be able to experience, and both are sometimes uncomfortable looks inside. As Paul McCartney once said, "If slaughter houses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian," which seems to be an appropriate refrain for these kind of stories. We all want the access, but sometimes it's a double-edged sword for the viewer/reader as well. But just because we don't like what we may see inside the "slaughter house" doesn't mean we shouldn't be privy to it.

That is really the essence of the flack between Ryan and Burke, Poile/USA Hockey and the media. Hockey people know that all players are talked about like this by scouts, GM's, coaches, etc. but most of the non-savvy media and fans don't, which means quotes like those above can be gobbled up and cause controversies like the one seen today. The people granting access, whether it be the military, Monsanto, or USA Hockey all have to be sensitive when granting access knowing it's a double-edged sword for everyone involved (which is why stories like this almost never get published). The onus is on them to prevent things like the Burke quotes from being published, and that fact alone is why stories using solely anonymous sources as the backbone often fail, as the Straus story did.

Everyone involved in access stories, including readers, have a right and desire to know what often is shielded behind closed doors. But not everyone can deal with the backlash that will come from it. Sports are no different. So next time one of these stories are published, appreciate it and fear it in equal measure. Appreciate it for the journalism from the access provided...

And fear it for the controversies from the access provided. (And yes, this includes you too Joe Thornton).

For further reading, here is the March Straus Piece, and here is the Burnside selection piece. For further reference, here is the Kevin Allen piece about the same selection process.

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