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Nov 9 / King Kaufman

How to write sensitively about tragedy and scandal

Joe Paterno surrounded by media

Joe Paterno is surrounded by media members as the child sex abuse scandal engulfs Penn State.

Horrible things sometimes happen in the world. Sometimes they’re connected to sports, as we’ve seen this week with the horrendous Penn State child rape scandal. Often there is no connection beyond the fact that people in the sports world are affected by tragedy anywhere, just as anyone else is.

Sportswriters sometimes get into trouble trying to draw parallels between what might be called “real-world” events—especially tragedies—and sports. When the tragedies are in the sports world to begin with, there’s a danger in trying to make the story about sports prematurely, when it still should be about life.

These attempts can be in the service of relevance or trying to capitalize on a traffic opportunity. Either way, they’re a bad idea, often deeply offensive to people.

Another pitfall is tunnel vision: When you’re immersed in a beat, it’s easy to see that beat as the whole world and forget that at times that its issues don’t amount to a hill of beans in the larger world.

Imagine being a Yankees writer and writing a piece about the stretch run was shaping up for the team on Sept. 12, 2001. You’d seem hideously insensitive. That’s an extreme example, but when sitting down to write about sports in the wake of serious real-world news, you have to check yourself to make sure you’re not doing something similar.

Readers look to Bleacher Report and other sites for analysis, and sometimes that includes trying to make sense of tragedies in the context of sports. And whenever something terrible does happen in the sports world, there will inevitably come a time when it’s appropriate to look at the effects on the field of play.

But it’s important to know when it’s too soon.

In May 2011 ESPN responded to the sudden death of an Alabama football player with a story about what it meant for the Crimson Tide’s defensive depth chart. I had no sooner finished slamming the World Wide Leader for the offensive story when a Bleacher Report writer did something very similar, discussing the death of an Oklahoma player in the context of the upcoming season.

We also had an incident after the Japan tsunami early this year when a B/R writer published a slideshow that drew parallels between the event and other natural disasters that have affected the world of sports. We quickly took that story down, apologized, suspended the writer and stepped up our efforts to educate our writers about these matters.

Here are some guidelines for writing about tragedy in the news:

  • All published content must be factually accurate, relevant, thoughtful, properly sourced and sensitive to the subject matter
  • It is unacceptable to draw parallels between real-world events—especially tragedies—and sports to try to capitalize on short-term traffic opportunities at the risk of long-term damage to reputation
  • If you don’t have the time to do it right, don’t do it at all

None of this means writers should shy away from writing about these difficult subjects. There are times when a story is so overwhelming that it seems hard to imagine writing about anything else on that day.

But it’s vital to be aware of the community’s standards of decency, and in our case the community is the web, which of course is worldwide. If you’re writing about a subject that could conceivably be touchy for some people, don’t rely solely on your own judgment.

Things that are deeply offensive to large segments of the community might not bother you at all. And conversely, things that nobody else seems to mind might offend you to the core. Either way, part of your task as a writer is to understand what the standards are and respect them.

A good way to figure that out is to get out into the community. That is, show your story, or at least talk about it, to as many friends, acquaintances and fellow writers as you can. Ask them if you think there’s anything offensive. Is it too soon? Are you going to far?

Bleacher Report exists to give readers what they want in real time. We capitalize on breaking stories and events in the sports world. But that pursuit of breaking information can never come at the expense of good taste or journalistic integrity.

Remember: Your integrity and credibility are finite resources, and once you squander them, they’re gone for good.

  • Joey Bravo

    This might be the only good thing ever written on B/R.

  • Dezrayh

    Everybody that knew about the rape/molestation of children/child should at the very least be fired and or brought up on charges