Jamie Byrne examines the responsibility that sports media has to take in dividing the personal from the sensational.
Accessing sporting news has never been easier, with 24-hour channels and radio shows dedicated to telling us what’s going on, who’s injured, who’s the next coach to get sacked, and who’s going to win at the weekend. But, most frequently, it’s the home of the latest sporting controversy. Every week, we hear and read about the footballer who’s been caught drink driving, or the cricketer who’s spent the night in a cell after a punch-up outside a club. These stories bring in viewers and sell the papers and, unsurprisingly, negative press is the most successful sort of press.
Leaders of tabloid papers and major sport dedicated channels drool at the mouth when the latest incident for Britain’s top athletes occur. However, what happens when there are no fights or charges? The TV shows still need to be broadcasted and the tabloids still need to be published. This is when negative agendas are created and stories are exaggerated. In most cases, this is just when a “pantomime villain” is created and something so little is published on the empty spaces of these papers and in the blank minutes of these channels, showing just how competitive the sports media industry truly is, and to what extent journalists will go to push their material to the front. This desperation results in stories being constructed and personal attacks taking centre-stage, and at that point, lines are crossed.
The most recent examples of lines being crossed by the British media in sport would be English cricketer, Ben Stokes, and Welsh rugby legend, Gareth Thomas. Stokes publicly denounced British tabloid The Sun for a recent front-page story regarding a traumatic event which occurred within the cricketer’s family more than three decades ago. The tragedy, which took place in New Zealand, was subject to wide media coverage at the time of the incident and was an extremely difficult period for the family. The fact that it was brought up again, due to Stokes being in the spotlight thanks to his and England’s successes in the Cricket World Cup (even though Stokes wasn’t even alive at the time of the tragic incident) emphasises the length to which some tabloids will go to sell papers. Stokes hit back hard at The Sun, labelling their antics “utterly disgusting” and “the lowest form of journalism”. The Sun defended its actions by claiming that a family member gave permission for the story to be published and was happy to cooperate with the paper.
Just the day before, The Sun had already come under immense backlash from the British public after Welsh rugby international, Gareth Thomas, had revealed that the tabloid press had pressured him into publicly announcing that he was HIV-positive. They had even discussed the diagnosis with Thomas’ mother and father before he could. Just like Stokes, Thomas criticised The Sun’s ethics and stressed how he “can never get that moment back”.
Tabloids, sports channels, and the sporting media as a whole, need to understand the importance of stories which will of course make money and bring in viewers due to their tragic nature. They must learn that it isn’t justifiable to intervene and publish pieces that are so extremely personal and difficult for these athletes. It’s an awfully overused saying, but it’s still very true: these are people too. The consequences of some of these stories can be so significant that lives can be put at risk.
Outside of sport, an example of a pantomime villain who was created by the press and social media was former semi-professional footballer and television personality, Mike Thalassitis, who was put in the public eye after appearing in hit ITV reality show, Love Island, in 2017. During his stint on Love Island, social media and the tabloid press pushed a negative narrative towards the reality TV star due to his antics on the show which earned him the nickname “Muggy Mike”. This negative outlook continued after the show and, years after, along with many other personal issues, the 26-year-old took his life. That’s not to say that this tag or negative idea was the main reason why this young star’s life ended, but it definitely wouldn’t have been easy for him to constantly feel like he owed the British public something. This is the sort of unbelievable pressure that the media can put on celebrities in the UK.
Obviously, some might naturally find it hard to feel bad for a group of people who make a huge amount of money and are globally idealised. But they still have families, friends and have their own self-doubts and fears. No matter how much a story is worth and how many readers and viewers it will pull in, sports journalists need to stick to fair journalism. We are lucky enough to live in a nation with a free press and the right to information about our politicians, celebrities and athletes. Let’s make sure that this blessing of free coverage and access to information is used wisely, before it’s too late. Let’s keep news to finding out things and solving issues – not personally attacking people for financial greed.