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  • Truth often the first casualty when separating "journalist" from "fan"


    There is nothing sports writers and journalists like to do more than talk about “journalistic ethics,” on anything from the use of unnamed sources to when it’s appropriate to report potential conflicts of interest. Often they’ll do this to cover their asses both professionally and legally, but a lot of the time it’s to demonstrate to their colleagues that they operate on a higher moral plane (“Oh, I would never do that sort of thing myself, etc.”).

    One topic that often comes up for debate is the impartiality journalists are supposed to observe when it comes to covering their chosen sport. The rules state for example that when you write about a team that you personally support, you should refrain from any and all self-identification or “fan boyism.”


    This makes obvious sense when it comes to writing newspaper or wire stories, but the perception for some is that Canadian soccer blogs are blurring the important distinction between fan and journalist, as they’re now the source for highly biased, highly personal fan frustration AND primary source news. Sometimes writers will try to put on their “news hat” in a newsy piece and their “fan blogger” hat in another within the same site, but the distinction is often fairly blurry.

    But a lack of impartiality is nothing new in the history of Canadian soccer journalism, and journalists have often gone as far as taking an active role in the growth of the sport in this country. Leagues like the USA and the NPSL in the 1960s, precursors to the NASL, were formed by millionaire businessmen in cahoots with local soccer writers and journalists from the US and Canada. The original Canadian Soccer League (1987-92) was in part the brain child of TSN’s Soccer Saturday host Dale Barnes. Journalists are often the glue that brings money and talent together, which makes sense; they make a living out of earning the trust of their sources on either side of the divide.

    The closeness between journalists and the game they cover (and love) isn’t always comfortable however, particularly in Canada where professional soccer is a fairly small beat and it’s pretty easy to shit where you eat.

    That issue has come up in a big way this week. First, we had Andre Hainault’s remarks to Noel Butler over comments Gerry Dobson and Craig Forrest made during the last Canada telecast. Hainault made a few headlines the last time around for refusing a call up because of an important match with his MLS club Houston Dynamo, and Dobson and Forrest were not alone in expressing their disdain. Hainault criticised the two for their remarks and said all they had to do was “pick up the phone” to call him and talk about the reasons why he said no to Canada this time around.

    Before that, we had Teal Bunbury’s legendary father Alex speak of the remorse he felt for the role he played in raising expectations his son would cap for Canada and not the US. Some soccer writers after reading the piece went so far as to express regret for the bad things they said about Teal, embarrassed they had let their love of the national team cloud their journalistic duty to impartiality.

    So should Canadian soccer pundits tread more diplomatically when it comes to their source material? That’s the MO of some, but it’s an approach that can be equally journalistically dodgy. Avoiding pointed criticism to keep your sources happy under the guise of “impartiality” leads to a noxious form of sycophancy that is rife in certain quarters of Canada’s soccer media, to the extent that speaking out too vociferously on the game here can cost you your job. Give me Paul James any day over a milquetoast, post-match quotes guy.

    I think the “solution” as it were is to carefully maintain the status quo; to not attempt some rigid, pie-in-the-sky idea of impartiality except when it’s explicitly appropriate; and to realize that tension is sometimes part of the job. I don’t see what Dobson and Forrest calling Hainault beforehand would have achieved, as his explanation, while interesting, doesn’t exactly change the facts on the ground surrounding his decision to play for Houston and not Canada. While Alex Bunbury gives some much needed context, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know; that choosing another nation to cap for is a complicated, highly-personal affair for players. We know it’s hard, and that each case is different and has its own lengthy back story. But that in and of itself doesn’t make it necessarily right.

    It also doesn’t mean the job of a soccer journo is to merely report both sides of the story and wash their hands of it. If Canadian soccer journalists had done that over the last one hundred years, the game would have gone nowhere in this country. Nor does it mean they should be biased, self-interested fans, bending the truth to fit their own personal world view.

    At the end of the day, journalist integrity is about being true to yourself, and telling the truth as you see it. That means reporting the facts, but also trying to parse the right from wrong, and being free to speak your mind. This is sport, not international politics. The freedom to speak out for the good of the game shouldn’t be dispensed with because of a quixotic ethical ideal.

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