The Media’s Role in the Howard Saga


In Orlando we are a little paranoid. We have seen this sordid story before.

Back in 1996, while Shaquille O’Neal was representing the United States and surrounded by the second Dream Team at the Olympics in Atlanta, the Orlando Sentinel issued a poll asking Magic fans whether Shaquille O’Neal was worth $100 million. Being a small market (much smaller than it is now) that had seen the Magic rapidly ascend to the top of the NBA in seven years, the fans and the owner were headstrong. The fans told the Orlando Sentinel they did not think so and Rich DeVos did not seem to think so either.

As his Olympic teammates joked about the poll and its results, O’Neal supposedly was seething and it further pushed him away to Los Angeles.

Maybe Shaq was always going to the Lakers. It was his childhood dream to walk in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s shoes. That was also a very different NBA. One that had no salary restrictions — length or amount — like it does now. But we can always learn from our past mistakes.

If you do not learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it.

And that is why there is so much consternation about Dwight Howard and his future. The Sentinel recognizes its history with Orlando big men. It is why Sentinel editors held a chat with fans about the paper’s coverage and why Mike Bianchi felt compelled to clarify a column he wrote after Dwight Howard seemed to call him and other media members out in several twitter posts.

Howard is obviously very tired of the speculation. A lot of ink has been spilled on this issue — here, in the Sentinel and elsewhere — and plenty more ink will be spent talking about, speculating and reporting Dwight Howard‘s ultimate decision about his future.

This is going to be a process that will be infused with a lot of emotion. Longtime fans do not want to see Howard leave the same way O’Neal did in 1996. Everyone is going to look to someone to blame if Howard is to leave. You can even interpret Howard’s comments about the questioning as his early attempt to position the newspaper and the media as the “bad guys” in all of this.

This is going to be a long, drawn out process. If Howard leaves, feelings will be hurt. But we are a long way from that time.

And with so much time to speculate, media outlets are going to go wild filling their print with headline-grabbing stories and speculations. Some of it will be based in fact, some of it won’t. Either way it is going to annoy the fans as much as it may annoy Howard. In reality, likely Howard’s decision will not be influenced by anything printed in the media unless it is some particular egriegous offense.

It is under this backdrop that Mark Russell, an editor for the Orlando Sentinel, tried to spell out more clearly what the Sentinel’s role would be in the coverage of  Dwight Howard‘s impending free agency. There is no doubt Howard’s future is a big news story especially in Orlando. It has only been multiplied by the advent of Twitter, instantaneous news, the 24-hour news window and the ever-present ESPN. Not to mention the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony parades of the last two years.

It was refreshing to see the Sentinel peel back the window a little bit and give the reader a clue into their editorial process.

“Our coverage — and our decision-making — is driven by our effort to put Howard’s future in context and report any developments that arise,” Russell wrote. “We also will continue to initiate online conversations about what kinds of moves the Magic should make to keep Howard or how to get value if they elect to trade him. That’s what a newsroom should do.”

And the Sentinel should strive to accomplish these goals. It is important as speculation and rumor continue to dominate headlines to evaluate the media and how they are doing their jobs. Are columnists representing their opinions clearly or are they presneting it as fact? Are reporters moving on well-sourced information or responding to rumors cited by another reporter? In what context are reports placed?

The Sentinel would be doing its readers a disservice if it did not recognize legitimate rumors through a link or a follow up question to Otis Smith, Stan Van Gundy, Dwight Howard or whoever. Especially considering how tight-lipped the Magic are with personnel moves, sometimes rumors are all the reporters have to go on. It might be productive to recognize the existence of a rumor and then follow up on it with a second report.

Newspapers are definitely in a strange position thanks to the 24-hour news window and even blogs like this.

A quick anecdote might illustrate this. You may remember back in December, I posted a story about the potential of the Magic trading for Monta Ellis. I heard the rumor from a Warriors blogger who sourced someone at the Warriors front office. I was not entirely sure how credible the report was. I did not want to report it as “The Magic ARE talking with the Warriors.” I had nothing to say they were.

As a blog, I may not have the same cache or prestige as the Sentinel. But remembering, my journalism ethics class, I decied to turn this rumor into a post exploring what a Monta Ellis trade might look like and its pros and cons for Orlando. I asked the reporters where they were getting their information and how credible they thought it was. I made sure to say throughout the post that this report was pure rumor and nothing was imminent.

Zach McCann of the Orlando Sentinel picked up the rumor and took it straight to Otis Smith, who immediately shot it down. When I saw Zach a few weeks later (actually it was the day the actual trades went down at the morning shootaround before the game), I asked him about how he handled the post I had written. I had trepidations about writing the post in the first place. Zach told me reporting these rumors does make his job a little harder because he then has to ask the question since it is floating out there.

The thing is though, it is out there. And if the reporter does not ask the question directly to the source, it stays out there without any truth attached to it. That is the reporter’s job. They have to give their readers the full story and find out if there is any truth to the rumors.

There is going to be a lot of sensationalism. And the placement of stories might draw criticism. But the media’s proper job is not to speculate, it is to lay out the facts and analyze them. There will be time for speculation later. But it is important to remember that you cannot blame the media for following up on rumors, so long as they are not the ones putting out unsourced rumors.

This is going to be a long process (much like this post). It is important to remember that sometimes it is not the messenger’s fault.

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