We'e going away from covering the game, we're getting closer to sensationalized news. It's not even news really it's complete nonsense. —Steve Kerr
I’d like to thank Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors.
He took the kind of question most people hate (and if we’re honest, most of us reporters hate to ask), and turned it into a lesson on whether public interest should drive media priorities.
The question was what he thought of Lavar Ball’s assertion by an ESPN reporter that the Lakers didn’t want to play for their head coach Luke Walton. When reporters ask coaches or players about a controversy involving other coaches or players, most decline to wade into the fray.
Instead, Kerr took the opportunity to raise the issue of why and how the media might cover someone like Ball, a mostly disgruntled, outspoken, hypercritical and provocative parent to NBA rookie Lonzo Ball.
'This is the world we live in now'
Kerr begins with pointing out that while ESPN laid off more than 100 reporters in the past couple of years, including many “really talented journalists” covering the NBA, they found the money to send Jeff Goodman to Lithuania to interview Ball about his unorthodox decision to withdraw his other two sons — LaMelo, 16, and LiAngelo, 19, — from high school and college to sign contracts to play professionally in Lithuania.
Goodman filed a story, with an accompanying video, in which Ball criticizes Walton. A number of NBA coaches reacted with anger, and one even said he wouldn’t speak with ESPN reporters because of the coverage.
“It’s not an ESPN judgment," Kerr said. "It’s a societal thing, more than anything. We’re going away from covering the game, we’re getting closer to sensationalized news. It’s not even news really it’s complete nonsense. But if you package that irrational nonsense with some glitter and some ribbon, people are going to watch.”
He said he’d talked to reporters about why they continue to put a microphone in front of LaVar Ball.
“Why do you guys have to cover that guy?” Kerr said of his conversations with reporters. “They say, ‘Well, we don’t want to; nobody wants to. But our bosses tell us we have to because of the ratings, because of the readership.’ Somewhere, I guess it’s in Lithuania, Lavar Ball is laughing at all of us. People are eating out of his hands for no apparent reason other than, you know, he’s become the Kardashian of the NBA, and that sells.”
Kerr said it isn’t just sports that covers people or stories simply because they are provocative.
“That’s what is true in politics, in entertainment, and now in sports,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if there is any substance involved. It’s just can we make it really interesting for no apparent reasons. There is nothing interesting about that story.”
Can it be news and entertainment?
News organizations have always had to balance covering news with entertainment. That distinction becomes even more difficult to make when it comes to sports. I will disagree that LaVar Ball isn’t newsworthy at all. His approach to parenting his athletically gifted children is so radical that it’s worth covering. While most of the world’s athletes envy the way U.S. athletes can pursue their educational goals alongside or because of their athletic abilities, he’s chosen to just turn his back on that system.
What if it works well for his sons, and other parents and players decide it’s a better option than dealing with the NCAA? It’s worth following. It’s worth reporting whether and how the boys succeed or fail.
Still, that doesn’t mean everything that comes out of Ball’s mouth is a news story. In this case, the story is ridiculously flimsy as it includes no response from the Lakers or the players, and is just Ball’s assertion from watching how many high-fives are exchanged or what the point differential is in losses.
It was an absurd story that readers devoured.
A few thoughts on this reality and the complexity of how and why news organizations cover — or ignore — what they do.
First, those reporters who told Kerr why they’re covering Ball are being disingenuous or they don’t understand their jobs. He’s newsworthy, and it would be good for reporters to explain that to coaches who hate that the guy gets attention.
Second, everything a source says isn’t newsworthy. It may, however, be entertaining. Reporters choose to write stories all the time that are only entertaining. It doesn’t matter at all to my life — or really anyone’s life — that Ball chose to take his boys to play professionally in Lithuania.
Sometimes entertaining stories pay the bills for the news stories. Critics of the media love to point out what we do for ratings or readership, but the reality is that these are businesses as much as they’re organizations committed to holding powerful people accountable and informing the public about critical issues.
It’s not always if we cover but how
Kerr finishes up with his opinion, which while thought-provoking is also misguided.
“There is nothing interesting about that story,” he said. “Do you know how many parents of my players have probably been at home going, ‘Why isn’t he playing my kid?’”
While that’s true, those parents didn’t take their children out of top high school and college programs to play professionally. There is something interesting about him and his sons, but the media have to do a better job of discerning what those stories are and how they are valuable to readers or viewers.
It’s what we’ve always done to some degree, but the constant 24-hour deadline and social media madness has made that much more difficult. It is almost impossible for a hardworking, competitive reporter not to get caught up in the race to be first without asking is this a story I want to do? Or maybe the question should be, “Is this the way the story should be presented?”
That’s the value in Kerr’s comments.
He reminds us that while some people will always consume mindless, worthless garbage, we should really be focused on how our coverage serves those who subscribe or consistently watch. It doesn’t mean they’ll always agree with our editorial decisions, but we can offer a more enlightened explanation of why we do what we do than, “Because my boss made me do it.”
I have asked more questions I hated asking than I can remember. Sometimes I feel exactly like the soulless click-counter that critics think we are.
But for me, the solace always comes from the fact that in every case, even on those stories I was cajoled by an editor to do, I gave a lot of thought to how I would cover it and how I would write it in a way that gave something of value to the readers of the Deseret News.