Playing ?Devils? Advocate

By: Shawn Moynihan

These days, there are endless cases of strapped newspapers with downsized staffs, that are hurting for content. One New Jersey daily met this need by having an employee of one of its sports teams write stories about that team for the paper, stirring an ethical debate in the process.

The Asbury Park Press, a Gannett newspaper and one of the Garden State’s longtime dailies, for several weeks starting in April had Eric Marin, who writes for the New Jersey Devils’ Web site, provide content on the hockey team. While Marin did not actually cover games before the Devils were knocked out of contention this season, he did write non-game day pieces about the team itself.

One issue with which some journalists took umbrage is the newspaper’s transparency on Marin’s affiliation. His early bylines carried the tag “Special to the Asbury Park Press” and even simply “Correspondent.” But once the issue received more attention in the blogosphere, that tag was expanded to say, “Eric Marin works for the New Jersey Devils and writes for newjerseydevils.com.”

“My sense is the evolution came about because they realize they were outed on this issue,” says Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “I think they were initially dishonest by not providing full and open disclosure. Then, when it was called into question, they modified their position.”

Hollis Towns, the Asbury Park Press’ executive editor and vice president/news, told The New York Times’ Richard Pérez-Peña, “As long as it served our readers and we told them where that content was coming from, the readers were fine with it. I think journalists get hung up on certain lines of what’s ethical more than the readers.” Towns declined to comment to E&P further on the issue.

“The Gannett papers cover a huge portion of our fan base,” Robert Sommer, a spokesman for Devils Arena Entertainment, the team affiliate that runs the Prudential Center where the team plays, told the Times. “For us this is great, because now our fans in those areas can follow us in their local papers.”

 “The business has clearly changed,” Sommer tells E&P, emphasizing the need for newspapers to consider various options to obtain content that will attract readers. He should know: Previously, Sommer served as president of the Observer Media Group. The naysayers, he adds, “are the ones who would still be buying printing plants, as opposed to looking at digital strategies.”

Some could argue that this is sports content, and not hard news — so the rules aren’t quite the same. Others, who hold sports coverage to a very high standard, might say it’s a grievous ethical breach. What do these professionals think?

Kevin Smith
President, The Society of Professional Journalists:

“What concerns me are the comments from the editor who said he thinks journalists get hung up on ethics more than the public. Well, there is a reason for that. If we don’t police ourselves and address these kinds of issues then the quality of journalism suffers and our credibility with the public is greatly eroded. Allowing people who have a vested interest in a story the opportunity to write it, isn’t just questioning objectivity, it’s questioning the credibility of the people who allow these conflicts not only to exists, but to flourish.”

Robert Sommer
Spokesman, Devils Arena Entertainment

When it comes to considering other options for content, “the naysayers are the ones who would still be buying printing plants, as opposed to looking at digital strategies.”

Kelly McBride
Ethics Group Leader, The Poynter Institute

“Sports is one of those topics that has a highly engaged audience — all you need is a handful of [outside] people who are probably already offering up their opinions and analysis. If you’re looking for coverage from other sources outside your newsroom, there are other ways to do that.”

Michael Miner
Senior Editor, Chicago Reader

“You’re not working for the reader if you’re working for the people you’re writing about. You can’t be paid by the hockey team and expect any one to assume you’re reliably writing about the hockey team. It defies all common sense. The team isn’t paying you to be honest.”

 

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