By: Joe Strupp
As slugger Barry Bonds closes in on Henry Aaron’s career home run record this season, no newspaper will have to walk a more careful tightrope of coverage than the San Francisco Chronicle. While nearly all media outlets are approaching Bonds’ expected breaking of the 755 record with skepticism given revelations that he used steroids, the Chronicle, which broke the steroid story in 2004, has a greater challenge.
Given that the Chronicle broke the story of Bonds’ steroid use with disclosures of leaked grand jury testimony in the BALCO case in which Bonds and other major athletes apparently revealed steroid use, the paper cannot appear to be gloating over the fact that its scoop has tainted the record chase. But the paper also cannot pull back and fail to give the record the proper scrutiny and context.
Either way, editors agree that coverage of the home run chase, which involves arguably the most hallowed record in professional sports, will not include the usual local celebratory approach most often found when a local athlete reaches such a milestone.
“It puts us in an odd position, but you can’t ignore the baseball history achievement,” said Glenn Schwarz, Chronicle sports editor. “When he passed Babe Ruth [in 2006] we didn’t go overboard. But there was big picture on Page One and the sport section was dominated by it.”
Still, Schwarz said coverage of Bonds breaking the career home run record this season, which will happen if he hits another 22 dingers, will not approach the attention he received in 2001 when he broke the single-season home run mark with 73 long balls. “There were advertisers who lined up and we had extra pages that last week of the season,” he said of the 2001 story. “There was also a four-page tribute to him after he did it.”
But don’t expect such lavish coverage this year, Schwarz said. Part of the reduction is simply the advertising climate, he said. But the steroid taint of the record also cannot be ignored. Last year, when the Ruth record was passed, Schwarz said “there was little advertising interest, nothing that really crystalized as I recall, nothing to justify a special section.”
Schwarz said walking the tightrope between overcoverage and underplaying the story is not a concern to him. He believes his beat writers and columnists can give context to the record, as well as point out the underlying negative elements. “I want perspective and context in the news story, but the columnists are free to go where they go,” he said. “I don’t like to shape it. All four of our general [sports] columnists have been quite critical of him.”
Editor Phil Bronstein also believed that the paper could cover the story in a balanced way, keeping in mind that it is a news story as well.
“It will definitely be a news story and a story of interest and we will cover it that way,” Bronstein said. “Everything has a context. We will recognize its news value as we have in the past.”