Investigative Journalism: What to Do and What Not to Do

If the month of August in college football was defined by the Johnny Manziel autograph signing scandal, September’s off-the-field news has come from  two separate reports of breaking the rules. The first investigation to make news was Sports Illustrated’s five part series on Oklahoma State indiscretions beginning in 2001. The reports, titled The Money, The Academics, The Drugs, The Sex, and The Fallout (The Fallout has not yet been published), garnered a lot of media attention and speculation after sneak peeks by SI were released before the articles. Every day, from Tuesday to Friday, Sports Illustrated published one of the articles written by George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans. Despite the anticipation, these articles fell flat. The stories were filled with bombastic language and extreme allegations, but were only supported by quotes from low-profile former players, many of who were kicked off the team.

Sports Illustrated designed graphics for each part of the story

Sports Illustrated designed graphics for each part of the story

Meanwhile, on September 11th (the same day SI’s The Academics was published), Yahoo Sports writers Rand Getlin and Charles Robinson released a lengthy article detailing how 5 SEC players (DJ Fluker from Alabama, Tyler Bray and Maurice Couch from Tennessee, and Fletcher Cox and Chad Bumphis of Mississippi State) received improper benefits stemming from agents and advisors. The article outlines the extent of the allegations and then backs them up with evidence of numerous incidents of money exchange in 2012. Even though Yahoo’s article is arguably a bigger story with more ramifications, no advertising was made beforehand to drive traffic to the website. These two instances of investigative reporting clearly went in very different directions in terms of their story and information, which is why these stories are the perfect examples to discuss the state of reporting in the sports world.

As nearly all industries have changed with technology, so has journalism. Reporters and writers have become more and more public, with some on the verge of being celebrities themselves. Many times, the story is not just about the content, but also about the writer. While the debate over whether this is a good or bad thing is for another day, it is obvious that the situation is bad for journalism when the content of the story suffers. Also, since so much online revenue for news websites is driven by number of clicks, some reporters and websites have sacrificed their integrity for those valuable clicks. Sports Illustrated’s Oklahoma State exposé is one of those cases.

What seemed to happen is that Dohrmann and Thayer found a lead in the idea that there were major indiscretions in OSU football under coaches Les Miles and Mike Gundy. Of course, this is how most stories start until they end up as a nice feature article somewhere tucked within the pages of the magazine. This time, though, Dohrmann and Evans wanted more: they wanted the cover. They stretched the material they had to five separate stories. The real story became about the series itself, rather than the content in the articles, which should never happen in journalism. The entire process of revealing these stories one day at a time until they appear on the front cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated makes it clear SI was striving for clicks. In addition, teasing the series and releasing blurbs to get people worked up about what will be said was to generate more revenue.

SI’s cover released on September 17th featuring Dohrmann and Evan’s articles

Yahoo’s article exposing the payments of five players, however, was handled in the absolute correct fashion, making SI’s piece that much more embarrassing. The Yahoo writers, Getlin and Robinson, first and foremost supported their claims with facts. Lots and lots of facts. The writers also received official responses from the universities, something Dohrmann and Evans did not do. There remains little doubt in anyone’s mind that these payments occurred because of how thorough the article was. Moreover, when this story broke, it was truly breaking news: no advertisements, teasers, or announcements were made ahead of time. These authors weren’t looking to maximize clicks, there were looking to maximize story content.

So what can we learn from all this? In an investigative piece, good journalism wins out. The public backlash against SI’s story has generated major negative publicity for the magazine and the writers, who have lost much credibility over what they’ve reported by trying to stretch too much out of this story. On the other hand, most people believe Yahoo’s story will lead to repercussions after the NCAA completes their own investigation (which would be difficult to botch, considering everything has been laid out for them). In the end, two journalists have furthered their careers and two have hindered their careers, and it’s a good sign for journalism that the good guys won this round.

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One Response to “Investigative Journalism: What to Do and What Not to Do on “Investigative Journalism: What to Do and What Not to Do”

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