According to Sources Familiar With Bulls**t: Rumors And Gossip In Sports Journalism


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While reading about the NBA, I recently came across the phrases “a source familiar with [Carmelo] Anthony’s thinking” and “sources familiar with ownership’s thinking”.

The first time I read it, the context irked me and, after seeing it again another piece, I decided to do a little Googling. It turns out, this phrase has been getting thrown around a lot over the past few years. For instance:

  • “sources familiar with [David] Stern’s thinking” (NY Daily News)
  • “sources familiar with the Wizards’ thinking” (Washington Post / Chicago Tribune)
  • “sources familiar with [Phil Jackson’s] thinking” (ESPN)
In fact, it’s seemed to be growing in frequency. In the past couple years, ESPN alone has had source “familiar with [Wes] Matthews’ thinking“, “familiar with the Grizzlies’ thinking“, “familiar with the Thunder’s thinking“, “familiar with the Nets’ thinking“, “the [New York Knicks] thinking” and even sources “familiar with the bad guys’ way of thinking“.
Many of these were the basis for whole articles predicated solely on unverified, single-source speculation without any specific credentials other than the aforementioned “familiarity”. Now, I can understand protecting your sources and the need for anonymity, but the old rule was to make sure sources were credible and then describe your sources “as clearly as you can without identifying them” (NPR).  In the case of “people familiar with ___ thinking”, however, I’m inclined to believe the ambiguity masks a lack of relevance more than anything else. The “familiarity” attribution feel like an attempt to reframe gossip as something more legitimate. This is understandable for a publication like ESPN, who rely on this type of rumor for their clicks but still want to maintain the illusion of quality; however, it blurs the line between personal opinion and expert opinion, and that’s problematic.
Excessive sourcing like this has allowed the NBA rumor-mill to become a cottage industry and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) wrote discussed the trend back in 2015:

“Thursday at 3pm marked the NBA trade deadline… Reporters had spent the day and those leading up to it in fierce competition to satisfy rabid fan interest by making note of every twist in every potential trade… Most of these rumors never came to fruition. And because many were inscrutably attributed to “league sources,” as they were being reported, it is impossible to know how trustworthy its sources were… But fans don’t seem to care whether the rumor is vindicated, at least in the moment they’re reading about the possibility of a new hero coming to the rescue of a beloved team.

“The possibilities are more interesting than the reality,” Curtis said. “Nothing’s really happening in the NBA right now. We kind of know who’s going to make the playoffs and we’re just playing out the last 30 games. The actual sports aren’t enough to satisfy people and so we create these quasi-sports moments.”

 And they’re created using anonymous sourcing, despite an industry norm that eschews the practice. Even common phrases like “a team official,” “a league executive,” or “a person close to the situation,” are deemed too specific. Hence the widespread use of the opaque term “league source”… At The New York Times, writers are encouraged to be as specific as possible in describing their sources. Perhaps partly as a result, the paper almost never breaks basketball scoops.”

CJR goes on to point out that “both teams and agents sometimes abuse the privilege of anonymity by spreading misinformation that serves their own interests—with agents being generally seen as the primary offenders”. Of course, in the end, it’s the publications themselves who have a responsibility to their readership and the public at large. It’s these sorts of behaviors that have allowed the “fake news” problem to escalate so quickly.

Obviously, I don’t mean to be hyperbolic when we’re talking primarily about sports blogging, but it’s a slippery slope. A quick search will show that this has been going on in political reporting as well.
In December, NBC’s Bradd Jaffy quoted “sources familiar with Trump’s thinking” in order to eschew rumors about Jon Hunstman’s chances of being Secretary of State. A month before that, Jonathan Swann of The Hill wrote a piece about Steve Bannon where he quoted “sources familiar with his thinking”.
And with the NBA trade deadline fast approaching, and election perpetually just around the corner, there I will no doubt see similar attributions in the following weeks. And I’ll probably read the pieces, because it’s easy and it satisfies my hunger for “information”, even if only for a moment. But the danger is clear: If we continue on this road, where rumors verifying other rumors create whole news cycles out of thin air, we can easily find ourselves stranded in a place where sensationalism trumps the truth. And all we’ll have left to do at that point is wonder how it was that trust in journalism got so eroded?, as the remaining foundations of the fourth estate are slowly washed away.
“When you mix fiction and news, you diminish the distinction between truth and fiction, and you wear down the audience’s own discriminating power to judge”
–Bill Moyers (LA Times, 1989)