The “sources say” conundrum in sports reporting

ESPN reporter Joe Schad broke the news that former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik was going to be installed as UNC’s next defensive coordinator. Schad’s sources on the matter were ambiguous, anonymous sources, something that irked News & Observer beat reporter Andrew Carter.

Carter bemoaned the “ESPN-ization” of sports reporting on social media that day, as he blamed the large network for allowing these anonymous sources — which have burned ESPN and other sports reporters in the past — to become standard practice for reporting common news such as a football hiring.

Carter’s tweets, which have since been deleted, included some interaction with other readers and writers, highlighted by one exchange when Carter said “it is not like we are reporting on ISIS or something.”

As much as I subscribe to ESPN (see: my media diet), I cannot help but agree with Carter on this point. Almost every story ESPN breaks is attributed to anonymous sources, whether it be a big trade, coaching hire or firing.

While I won’t pretend like I know how to run a wildly popular, internationally-known company, I do know that anonymous sources are almost never allowed in sports stories — or any stories for that matter— that the DTH runs. There is simply too much risk being placed in an individual who refuses to be publicly identified for anonymous sources to be trusted.

I believe ESPN has been able to get away with it for so long because, as Carter put it, it’s not like ESPN is reporting on ISIS. The news they break, while serious to sports fans, is not ground-breaking information in the terms of the political and financial world; the fallout from an anonymous source being wrong about Gene Chizik is substantially less than that of an anonymous being incorrect about lay-offs in RTP.

I understand the value of breaking sports news first. Schad’s tweet blew up in my social media realm and even prompted me to add some commentary on the matter, albeit mine was probably a little more cynical (I mean, I did sit through most of the State game so I think it is allowed).

But that does not mean that sports reporters do not have to be held to the same standard as every other reporter. ESPN should try to push through the barrier and force these “sources” to go on the record, setting the standard for the rest of the sports journalism world.

Because as long as ESPN’s most commonly cited source remains unnamed, the more and more sources are going to want to refuse to go on the record — a disservice to both readers and journalists alike.

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