Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Reporting vs. Sensationalism

Tony Burman (CBC) has a nice article regarding the media's coverage of Wayne Gretzky's alleged involvement in the gambling scandal:
The original news seemed narrow enough. Early last week, New Jersey authorities announced that charges had been laid against Wayne Gretzky's assistant coach, Rick Tocchet, and two New Jersey men, including a state police officer. They were accused of running a nationwide sports gambling operation.

There was no suggestion that Gretzky himself had any involvement, but investigators said his wife had placed bets with this group - something U.S. authorities pointed out wasn't necessarily illegal.

Still, for the North American media, particularly in Canada, this was The Perfect Storm. "Scandal," hockey and The Great One. There are moments like these when the sport's near-spiritual status in Canada reveals itself.

By the weekend, there was media speculation on a variety of topics - ranging from whether Gretzky was "distancing" himself from his wife to what the impact on Canada's gold medal chances would be if he went to the Olympics in Turin.

But significantly, the original media report that propelled this story into the stratosphere, the one that was attributed to "unnamed sources," seems to have been wrong.

Last Thursday, U.S. media reports cited unnamed "sources familiar with the investigation" as saying that Gretzky had been recorded on a wiretap talking to Rick Tocchet about how his wife could avoid being implicated. The suggestion was that this wiretap was several weeks ago, before the charges were made public. This would have contradicted Gretzky's assertion that he had no prior knowledge of the illegal gambling ring.

But since then, "sources" in New Jersey have told the Associated Press that the wiretapped conversation was actually last Monday, after Gretzky had been informed by authorities of the charges. This would corroborate Gretzky's statements.
When this story first "broke" last week, I mentioned how I would reserve judgement until facts were gathered, and not mere allegations and speculations. True enough, more information regarding the scandal are now surfacing and it's beginning to look like some of the "news" that was reported was false.
In this environment, a single media report — in this case, one from a New Jersey newspaper few of us had ever heard of, citing an "unnamed source" — can assume a life of its own. That's what happened last Thursday.

At the CBC, we were unsure how to evaluate it. We felt we had to report it since it was certainly "out there," but we qualified the claim and stressed that it had not been confirmed. By the end of the day, we pulled back even further and included it as part of the many "rumours and innuendo" that this story was generating.

Other news organizations, even the next day, were not as restrained, and this probably helped contribute to the suspicions that were being linked to Gretzky at the end of the week. But it's a tribute to Gretzky, and to his reputation, that his strong denials of wrongdoing now seem to be widely accepted — in spite of media confusion.
This may be of little consolation to Gretzky, who has had to endure, and continues to endure, intense media scrutiny. At a Team Canada news conference held prior to the team boarding the plane for Torino, most of the questions he faced were scandal-related, not hockey-related.

I can think of only one reason why the media continues to seek Gretzky out in this matter - a scandal with Gretzky's name attached to it is certainly juicier than one with only Rick Tocchet's and a corrupt state trooper's. If the media wanted to cover the scandal story, fine. But they should really report on those actually involved, don't you think?

Comments/Questions: Feel free to post in the comments section or email me at gocanucksgo10 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

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posted by J.J. Guerrero, 10:24 PM


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