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Feb 13 / King Kaufman

Stefan Fatsis slams Sports Illustrated’s anonymous reporting on Michael Sam

Michael Sam

Michael Sam / AP

In a piece that appears in both Slate and Deadspin, Stefan Fatsis sharply criticizes Sports Illustrated for its coverage of Mizzou linebacker Michael Sam coming out as gay.

Fatsis, who spent about a decade each with the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal and has written three books, writes that SI’s Peter King, Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans made bad journalistic decisions as they reported their reaction pieces, and that those decisions resulted in coverage that didn’t accurately reflect what Fatsis describes as “a reasonable reflection of a broader reality.”

Thamel and Evans’ story, “How will news that Michael Sam is gay affect his NFL draft stock?” was published within minutes of Sam’s announcement, which was made through ESPN and the New York Times simultaneously Sunday night. King’s column, “The NFL’s Big Test posted a couple hours later.

The two pieces were presented as a kind of reality check on the good feelings of Sam’s announcement, as the anonymous sources in both issued heavy doses of negativity about the prospects of Sam being accepted, or even being drafted, by the NFL. Thamel and Evans quoted “eight NFL executives and coaches.” King quoted three general managers and a scout. In fact, Fatsis points out, King offered his sources anonymity up front, which Fatsis calls “a newsroom no-no.”

You grant anonymity to get information or to understand background and context. You don’t let a source trash someone anonymously. King wrote that anonymity “would give the best information possible.” But he didn’t give information, only blind, unchallenged opinion. If his sources had spoken on the record and said something mealy-mouthed or had outright lied, King would have performed a journalistic service far greater than letting them shiv Michael Sam in his pursuit of “the truth.”

Moreover, by offering anonymity, King, Thamel, and Evans were actually encouraging their sources to talk smack about Sam. That is, they were encouraging them to think of this as a horrifically complicated situation—that the presence of a gay player on an NFL team is so deeply fraught they couldn’t possibly be expected to affix their names to an opinion about it.

“The SI stories offered no counterbalancing opinion or analysis,” Fatsis continues, “so the message was clear: This is the NFL party line.” This despite a number of prominent NFL figures—far more prominent than the second-level guys Thayer and Evans quoted—making strong statements in support of Sam’s decision to come out.

Fatsis makes an important point by noting that how you approach the reporting of a story can have a huge influence on the conclusions your story reaches. All those anonymous team officials may turn out to be right: The league isn’t ready to embrace Sam and he isn’t all that good a player. They also might be wrong. Fatsis’ point is that right or wrong, the views in the story were not the only ones held by NFL execs, but they were the only ones Thayer, Evans and King were likely to get with the approach they chose.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that granting a source anonymity will lead to the telling of uncomfortable truths. It might. But anonymity can also provide cover for lying or pushing an agenda. It’s a dangerous tool. You think you’re using it, but it might end up using you.

Disclosure: Sports Illustrated, like Turner Sports, which owns Bleacher Report, is a Time-Warner company.

  • Ben Factor

    I love all this controversy, including SI and Fatsis. J.S. Mill was correct that the best cure for the problems of free speech is more free speech. Nothing changes until it becomes what it is.

  • Kurt Jonke

    I always cringe when “anonymous sources” are quoted as there is no way to verify whether the author doesn’t simply invent or at least reword these quotes to suit his needs. For me, anonymous sources should be the very last resort for writers and only used to make sure the source will face no negative consequences for giving vital inside information (of whichever kind), not encouraging them to give biased and unsustainable opinions.

    To base articles on anonymous opinions is definitely a poor choice.