Recap: Covering the Big Story

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Recap: Covering the Big Story
Oct 12, 2017

By Adam Zielonka

Sometimes “sticking to sports” is impossible. What do sports journalists and editors do when sports stories collide with political or social issues, and they need to be covered?

A group of veteran journalists took on that question at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism’s first panel of the academic year, “Covering the Big Story,” Wednesday night in the Eaton Theater at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

Retired Associated Press national sports editor Terry Taylor, Washington Post columnist Jerry Brewer, USA Today Sports managing editor David Meeks and The Undefeated deputy sports editor Lisa Wilson visited the University of Maryland to sit on the panel. They were joined by Diamondback sports editor Kyle Melnick. George Solomon and Kevin Blackistone moderated the conversation.

The conversation largely revolved around the latest developments in the National Football League players’ national anthem protests and President Donald Trump’s involvement in that public debate, as well as the recent suspension of ESPN host Jemele Hill over the company’s social media policy.

The panel began with the guests offering their advice for how to cover stories beyond the box score and on-field analysis, those that often deal with emotional social issues.

“You bring it back to all the fundamentals of journalism that you’ve learned,” Brewer said. “Write what you see. Go out and report. Talk to people. Don’t get trapped inside of your head. Don’t get trapped in the enormity of everything that’s going on. Bring it back to something you can focus on.”

While having empathy for various sides is important, Brewer also advised that “especially as a columnist, you’ve got to have an understanding of when to stop listening to the noise so you can hear your own voice.”

Brewer also said he initially didn’t have a problem with more NFL players adopting or adapting Colin Kaepernick’s form of protest after President Trump described protesting players in vulgar terms. The trick, he said, was in how the players were losing the battle of perception.

“Trump has made this a symbol, and the flag is a powerful symbol, but at the end of the day it is a piece of cloth. It doesn’t stand for anything on its own,” Brewer said. “We gave meaning to it, and so now (protesters) have to give meaning to what they’re doing.”

Meeks and Blackistone each referred to Trump’s ability to distract people from the message some players wanted to send, with Meeks going as far as to say the president “is his own media outlet.” Taylor thought there was a unified response to Trump on the first NFL Sunday after his original comments at an Alabama rally, but in light of recent events she now has a more ominous feeling about the near future.

“This whole thing is going to pop, and I keep getting this ‘popping’ feeling that we haven’t seen the worst of it yet,” Taylor said.

ESPN’s Jemele Hill recently illustrated the difficulty sports commentators face when they choose to speak up about politics or social issues, as she was suspended for two weeks for tweets about Donald Trump and Jerry Jones.

Wilson works for The Undefeated, ESPN’s vertical for the intersection of race, sports and culture, so neither she nor her colleagues could comment on their employers’ choice to suspend Hill. But, she added, The Undefeated staff created a video called “This Is Jemele Hill” honoring her career and released it this week.

“Jemele Hill is a great friend of The Undefeated, and you wake up in the morning and you see a tweet from the president accusing her (and saying) she’s responsible for (ESPN’s) ratings declining,” Wilson recalled, referencing this tweet.

When Solomon opened the panel for a question and answer session, one audience member asked if the media could do a better job at refuting lies the president tells. Meeks reiterated that reporters are distracted by new tweets from Trump each day, and the process of reporters correcting falsities has started to wear on citizens following along.

“Now you do see this: For a while, over time, it just starts to get a little bit, I guess, annoying might be the right word,” Meeks said. “And you see it erode people’s patience and you see people start to tune (reporters) out, even.”

Blackistone, who is teaching a class called “Sports, Protest and Media” for the first time this semester, spoke up when another audience member asked the panel about Kaepernick’s future.

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again–I think he’s a poor vessel for his protest. It is very difficult to be silent and to protest,” Blackistone said. “This whole message has been lost. It’s been lost because Colin Kaepernick, quite frankly, doesn’t talk.”

 

 

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