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Social media platforms blur lines of sportswriters’ objective reporting, opinions

Sports reporters, accustomed to a faster pace and fueled by competition, often lead the way when it comes to trying new things.

Social media has been no exception. Reporters today can blog, tweet and post videos, as well as write game stories on deadline.

They also have led the way when it comes to blurring the line between opinion and fact. Last week, I wrote about how traditional media has let social media hurt its franchise, partly because of this fact.

Newspapers maintain there is separation between who writes news and who writes opinion, by calling some of them reporters and others columnists. In reality, that tenuous line was trampled when reporters started using Twitter and broadcasting their opinions for all to read.

Here is a look at how the Cleveland Plain Dealer handled this issue:

Last month, the Cleveland Plain Dealer removed Tony Grossi from covering the Cleveland Browns after he mistakenly posted a tweet that said: Browns owner Randy Lerner “a pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world.”

Grossi meant for the post to be a direct message but posted it as a general tweet by mistake.  He took it down very quickly and apologized but the newspaper decided to make the change anyway.

The Plain Dealer explained their decision online and I have included some excerpts from that decision. The paper’s reader representative wrote the explanation, which said the decision to remove Grossi was made by editor Debra Adams Simmons, managing editor Thom Fladung and Sports Editor Roy Hewitt.

The apology was not enough, because “Fladung was still left with a problem: His Browns reporter had revealed to the world his utter disdain for the owner of the team he was covering. How would the paper’s readers be able to have faith in the objectivity in his reports following that?”

He continued with this analogy: ”What if the reporter covering City Hall called the mayor pathetic and irrelevant? What if a reporter in the Columbus bureau said that about the governor? They would be removed from the beat immediately. It’s the same with this situation.”

Really? Let’s try an apples-to-apples comparison. Grossi was not removed from his beat for tweeting who he voted for defensive player of the year in the NFL two weeks earlier. Clearly, he not only had an opinion but he was allowed to cast his opinion.

City reporters aren’t allowed to vote for council member of the year or best legislation of the year. But sports reporters can vote for the Heisman, Hall of Fame, etc. and then write stories about who won the award!

Grossi voted on who gets into the NFL Hall of Fame. When he was taken off the beat, the newspaper allowed May Kay Cabot, who is the Browns beat writer, to get his vote. The paper even posted a story about the change.

This isn’t an issue only with the Plain Dealer. This happens at several newspapers. And other papers prohibit the practice. The New York Times, for one, does not allow its reporters to vote for award winners.

But back to the Grossi case.

Editor Adams Simmons was quoted in the explanatory column: “If it had been a columnist who wrote that, we might cringe, but that role is different. They’re paid to offer up opinions, however prickly. But we’re not asking them to go out and cover a team in a fair and balanced and objective way, like we are with a reporter.”

Really, fair and balanced and objective?

Last year, I moderated a panel discussion at a conference of newspaper editors. I asked Adams Simmons if sports reporting in her print section should include more opinion, like her sports website does.  She responded emphatically that only the columnists write opinion.  There was a very clear line between the two at her paper, she said then.

I found that interesting, considering that the Plain Dealer received lots of attention for its front page the day after basketball star LeBron James announced he was leaving for Miami. The headline was one word “Gone.” That was above a full-page photo of James’ back. In small type, an arrow points to his right hand. Next to the arrow are these words: “7 years in Cleveland. No rings.”

Was that front page fair and balanced and objective?

I think it was a great front page. I also think it’s as opinionated as it gets. It’s clear the paper is making statement (i.e. stating an opinion) with that cover. Just like its beat writers do on blogs on their websites.

But in explaining Grossi’s reassignment, reader representative Ted Diadun wrote: “Reporters know or should know the mechanics of Tweeting, and that the journalistic standards are the same as they are with any other form of reporting.”

Really? The journalistic standards of Twitter are the same?

Here are few tweets from current Plain Dealer sports reporters since Grossi was reassigned:

Feb. 27: “Personal aside: I always liked Sacramento. Happy to see new arena agreement will keep Kings there.”

March 3: “Kyrie Irving said he will make his decision whether to play for Aussie Olympic team in the next few days. I’d be shocked if he went that way.”

March 4: “Rg3 at the NFL combine. Did great in his podium interview. Browns fans would love this guy.”

Not the most scintillating of items but they clearly depict the opinion of the writer.

Cleveland Browns beat writer Cabot has a blog on newspaper’s website,, called “Hey, Mary Kay.” The first question from a reader asked her whom the Browns should pursue in free agency.

Her answer: “First and foremost, I’d go after playmaking receivers, and there should be some good ones on the market. I’d focus on younger players still in the prime of their careers, such as Indy’s Pierre Garcon, who’s 25 and caught 70 passes for 947 yards last season. The Saints’ Robert Meachem, 27, is another good prospect.”

Social media has redefined the rules of engagement. Sports reporters have opinions. You can find them online and on Twitter. And sometimes on the front page.

Ronnie Ramos is the managing director of digital communications for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter.

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