Sports and the Media: Kick-Off for an Initiative to Make Things Better

August 8, 2008 • Specialist Journalism • by

Schweizer Journalist 06 + 07 /2008

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, EURO ’08 – the motto “participation is (almost) everything” isn’t only for major sporting events.  To receive accreditation, many sports reporters are prepared to play according to some questionable rule.  Preferring to remain on friendly terms with athletes and functionaries, reporters will opt to remain silent on certain problematic issues.  A kick-off for an initiative to make things better. Below are three major shortcomings of sports journalism.

1. Improper IntimacyMany sports reporters in Switzerland are sports fans themselves, and tend to be on friendly terms with athletes and functionaries while enjoying the privileges of VIP cards and other perks.  But when otherwise sunny relationships are threatened by dark clouds of scandal, reporters are content to look the other way.  When sex, violence, doping and corruption in the sports arena can no longer be ignored, then they’re quick to join the ranks of those who call for severe sanctions, tougher laws and a rolling of heads – until the storm has passed, at least.

Surely this behaviour isn’t exclusive to Swiss reporters – just take a look at their German colleagues.

But for the Germans, times are changing. Westdeutsche Rundfunk, one of the affiliate stations of German public-service broadcaster ARD, decided its sports journalists are to sign a new code of conduct. In the future, they are expected to look twice when faced with an example of record-breaking athleticism, they are to address athletes and functionaries with the formal “Sie” (instead of the friendly “Du”), and they are not allowed to close “any deal with representatives of the sporting world” – neither athletes nor sponsors.  The new policies were instituted after the discovery of previous excesses, for example the case of Hagen Bossdorf, former head of sports at ARD.  Bossdorf co-wrote the autobiography of ex-cycling pro Jan Ulrich, today a suspected doping offender, and hosted events on behalf of then cycling sponsor, Deutsche Telekom.  Additionally, sports reporter Rolf Töpperwien, who works for the other large public-service broadcaster in Germany, ZDF, said the following about his profession: “For me, the world of sports is like a big family. And I am not one of those who say there are two boats, one for the journalists and one for the athletes. I say we’re all on the same boat.”

In light of such ethical lapses, sports journalists’ desire for a clean, polished image is understandable. A truly new beginning, however, cannot be arranged by simply banning informal language or issuing new codes of conduct. What we really need are new ideas and attitudes. The formal “Sie” is nothing but a façade, a show put on for the viewers at home. The many private ties between athletes and journalists are unlikely to be severed because of a few meagre adjustments.

Still, a code of conduct like the one published by the ARD affiliate is not completely without its merits. Particularly as it comes from a public-service broadcaster widely regarded as one of the most respected promoters of journalistic values in Germany; one that – unlike many others –is rarely accused of misconduct. In short, the new code serves to expose some of the substantial shortcomings in today’s sports journalism.

2. Lies and Deceptions

Benedikt Weibel, appointed by the Swiss government as supervisor of EURO ‘08, has publicly stated he hoped for a tournament as great as the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a Swiss-Austrian EURO ‘08 that would touch the hearts and souls of football fans everywhere. This is a well-defined objective, and one that everybody can relate to. It’s a pity that the public perception of the ’06 World Cup and the actual event are more at odds than you might think.

In the days preceding the tournament, the German media aroused all kinds of fears, as if to justify the huge police presence that would be observed during the World Cup. Nevertheless, problematic events were kept under wraps to ensure that the giant party could continue widely undisturbed. It was not until the BBC aired the documentary Hooligans that light was shed on the closeted events taking place that summer.

After the 2006 football-related riots in Basel, media reports and politicians predicted that only a “hooligan law” would allow us to continue enjoying football. The people of Switzerland granted permission to pass the law in January of 2007. When police forces recently used pepper spray against fans, arresting everyone who couldn’t run fast enough after the match in St. Gallen, they certainly felt obligated to do so. Last May, when fans from Zurich threw burning torches during a match in Basel, the media informed us that the recently appointed law didn’t help against such unruly fans at all. To comfort any fears, we were also given the good news that such people weren’t likely to attend EURO ‘08 anyway, as the event would be visited primarily by families.

3. Bowing before the UEFA

In a statement issued in 1992, the Swiss Press Council advised sports journalists to clearly distinguish between sport’s competitive side and its economic aspects. This request demands the unveiling of power structures in the European Football Associations (UEFA), and other institutions like it. Such a mission, however, could be a bit of a problem. As a sports journalist, you must be one of the “insiders,” and the only way to enter stadiums is by being accredited by the UEFA. According to Swiss media magazine Klartext, the functionaries responsible for handing out such letters of accreditation prior to EURO ‘08 obviously took their time. Up to 60 days before the official start, many journalists were still left in the dark about whether they would or wouldn’t receive their official badges, among them staff members of Basler-Zeitung (which asked for nine accreditations), Regionaljournal (two radio journalists rejected) and Basellandschaftliche Zeitung (only one reporter accredited).

It seems the UEFA has all the decision-making power in its hands. In Swiss cities everywhere, the UEFA regularly commands streets blocked, and stadium vendors refusing to sell a particular brand of beer are banished from the fan zone.  In the end, the winner will always be the UEFA, generating estimated earnings in the amount of $1 billion francs annually. Meanwhile its representatives continue to applaud the virtues of football, an incomparable game uniting people everywhere, or so they say.

Airplanes are even allowed to circle overhead at night, controlling the lively and intoxicated masses. Swiss tax-payers foot the bill: 300 million francs annually, 80 million of which are spent on safety measures alone.  What do we get for all this? A glorified world, according to an article in Kleinreport: “The people watching the EURO ‘08 football matches on television do not see the full reality of the event: the images are carefully selected by the European Football Associations (UEFA), the organizer of the event. Its technicians make absolutely sure that no undesired scenes will appear on our TV screens.”

We would probably never realize all this, had it not been for Swiss Federal Council Samuel Schmid, who was recently angered. After watching the Austria vs. Croatia match in Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium a few days ago, he complained on Swiss television that he had unquestionably enjoyed the game in Basel more the day before, despite the fact that he  had only seen it on television. The reason being that in Vienna, smoke from torches swung by Croatian fans had gotten on his nerves. TV audiences  had certainly not seen this and were probably wondering how his frustration was ignited.

While on television you might see a quick sliver of smoke somewhere in the background, in reality an entire fan sector was immersed in a cloud of grey. The TV cameras didn’t capture this because they were simply broadcasting another part of the stadium. Also mentioned in Kleinreports, a Croatia fan managed to climb over the safety fence, though viewers at home only spotted a person being escorted off the field.

The UEFA obviously spares neither trouble nor expense to ensure that it maintains power over the images: 30 cameras, one helicopter, seven super slow-motion cameras and one high-speed camera (capturing 500 frames/sec.) are all on the arena during the live broadcasts. Clearly, this is an exercise in self-promotion: for whatever may happen on and off the field, EURO ‘08 shall remain untainted by it. Nevertheless, the UEFA is not all-powerful, as at least in principle.  National TV broadcasters are permitted to bring their own camera equipment into the stadiums, but the technical and financial efforts necessary to capture it alone would be enormous indeed.

What’s really at stake here, and not for the first time, is the credibility of journalism. No broadcaster s interested in airing 90 minutes of hooligans, inebriated fans and other delinquents. On the other hand, TV stations that feel truly devoted to the high ideals of journalistic objectivity would actually want to show reality as it is, i.e. as unfiltered as possible. Those hoping for that uncensored reality have to turn to the Internet, where blogs and forums offer some truly alternative views. You will find them on YouTube , but only for a short period of time, since the UEFA is obviously monitoring the site, pressing for a removal of copyrighted material as soon as it is uploaded.

This censorship should inspire  public alarm from media makers and just about everyone else living in Europe. Why? Well, just exchange “EURO ‘08 football matches” with “Beijing Olympic Summer Games” and “European Football Associations (UEFA)” with “the Chinese government” in the quotation that follows: “The people watching the Beijing Olympic Summer Games on television do not see the full reality of the event: the images are carefully selected by the Chinese government, the organizer of the event. And its technicians make absolutely sure that no unwanted scenes will appear on our TV screens.”

Do you understand?

The most important thing in journalism is keeping an open and critical eye on reality, whether it is in China or in the rest of the world. If we don’t, we will end up falling into the offside trap instead of scoring the winning goal. Final whistle.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann
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