Sport Opinion and Predictions: Journalism Standards for Writing Opinions

Cliff PotterCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2011

Is b/r special? You bet, in part because of its scope of opinion.
Is b/r special? You bet, in part because of its scope of opinion.

I recently wrote two articles on the St. Louis Rams. They were, respectively, on possible changes in the Rams personnel, location and alignment, and a trade for or the acquisition of Peyton Manning by the Rams. 

They were fairly well-read, although my tennis articles are usually far better read. 

Perhaps part of the issue is the Rams themselves. They are not exactly the New England Patriots. Or perhaps it is that the sport is not yet international, although the NFL has high hopes that NFL International will gain traction and succeed internationally. It could also be that I have never written about the Rams before.

But what could be the most likely reason for the limited readership was the fact that these articles were lacking something important. From the comments made, the prospect was that these articles somehow insulted the readers' intelligence or were too outlandish for publication. Indeed, one writer complained that the articles were so bad (as were others in Bleacher Report according to him) that he was dropping his membership in Bleacher Report forthwith. 

Because of the heat of the debate generated by my articles, and because I had never encountered this degree of fervency before on Bleacher Report (although it was close when discussing Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer), I decided to examine the standards set for opinion both here on Bleacher Report and on other sites with professional and amateur journalists.

Perhaps there was some standard I was missing, or something I had done wrong. I wanted to ensure that this was corrected, whatever that might be. And I thought that there was something that I could share in connection with this search. 

I should have used my sister, Deborah Potter, who is a career journalist and reporter. She teaches other journalists about, among other things, journalist standards.

The articles on the Rams were lambasted by many comments, but most of the vociferous ones were written by only a very few people. There were just a lot of them.

In large part, the reason for their commentary was that they thought I had no business talking about the Rams, and for some even the National Football League, because they claimed I know nothing about the sport.

The reason for their criticisms were largely based on their own opinions about the subject matters. But they failed generally to address key parts of the articles, and also based their views of my own writing on the opinions I expressed, and at times things I did not write or only some of the article without a balanced view of the opinion.

One or two caught two mistakes I had made in the last article I wrote on the Rams. I immediately corrected these mistakes, as any honest journalist would do. And I wrote specific comments on my opinions in the last article in the article itself. I thought it deserved this much effort due to some of the points made.

Yet there were still some lingering questions in my own mind about the comments. I did not want for Bleacher Report to lose readership because of my articles. I liked the site too much. And I wondered if there was a point to their position on opinion. Were any of my opinions over the line because they did not accept the commonly shared "wisdom" of those in the know?

Was there some standard for opinion other than accuracy in the use of facts? Were these readers, who at times appeared to know their subject matters very well indeed and at times were other well-recognized writers, correct that there was no room for my own opinions, or even questions I raised?

So I went out into the hinterland to see what was out there about opinion.

When I started, I was certain of a few things. Whatever the opinion, it should be written with care. A best-efforts attempt should be made to ensure that if any facts were included, they were considered and reported as accurately as possible, and that any mistakes are corrected, at least at times with a mea culpa attached. 

I was fairly certain that the articles under attack had met the standards required for Bleacher Report articles. I knew that one of the more vociferous commentators had had a comment removed by someone other than me, so I knew that there was someone involved in Bleacher Report at a higher level than me who had read the comment and felt it was inappropriate. And a quick review of the published requirements showed that the most important aspect of the standards was respect for others.

Thinking about standards I had researched in another context, I decided that two locations that would be sufficient for my own purposes. I knew the Society of Professional Journalists had standards; I may have either tried to or been a member at one time.  And because of their experience in connection to the Iraq War, I knew The New York Times had carefully reviewed their own standards in the fairly recent past. 

After my review, I decided that there are some aspects of these standards worth considering for anyone writing sports opinion.

The most important is that there are no standards for making an opinion. Of course, that does not mean that you can do anything inappropriate in any publication under these standards. They must be accurate in the reporting of fact. But beyond that, no matter how outlandish, the writing is permissible.

The most basic reason for this is unarticulated but present for every journalist and publication. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution demands that any opinion, no matter how crazy, be heard. Not that Bleacher Report could not impose a "standard" on opinion. But where would they set their bar? You can write about what and not about what? Impossible to set any bar on opinion. And most would not want any site or publication to do so.

The second reason is that opinion, even that which is about people, is generally acceptable. It could be bad if moved into fact, as there are libel laws.

Interestingly, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics shows that speculation about possible conduct by people is acceptable unless it is about allegations of wrongdoing. Even then, the only requirement is that the subject be given the opportunity to respond. Thus, journalists must "[d]iligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing."

Of course, "[d]eliberate distortion is never permissible." And journalists should "[m]ake certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context." In my view, this standard is the most difficult. Choosing what is in a headline has been a matter of debate in one site I belong to, where this is quite loose indeed.

But in all, even on most websites, the most important issue is the effort to be accurate. Not with opinion, since someone will always be wrong. Not with pure speculation, which is merely unsupported opinion. But with all analyses, no matter what the subject.

The SPJ Code of Ethics does not appear to have any specific guidelines on websites. On the other hand, The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism recognizes the potent and expansive power of website writing. And yet do nothing to limit what is provided as opinion apart from the following caution and the requirement that the authors not write on subjects for which they are paid by NYT or be intemperate.

"126. Web pages and Web logs (the online personal journals known as blogs) present imaginative opportunities for personal expression and exciting new journalism. When created by our staff or published on our Web sites, they also require cautions, magnified by the Web's unlimited reach.

"127. Personal journals that appear on our official Web sites are subject to the newsroom's standards of fairness, taste and legal propriety. Nothing may be published under the name of our company or any of our units unless it has gone through an editing or moderating process."

These guidelines do provide some common guidance. Their key concept is being temperate in comments and tone. One can say things without being insulting or demeaning. And for that, we all benefit.

Thus, there is no specific limitation I can find on offering any type of opinion in sports. But there is, from one of the most famous newspapers in the world, the recognition that websites provide us with "imaginative opportunities for personal expression and exciting new journalism." 

Of all the places in sports, this is something that Bleacher Report offers. And I for one really appreciate its format and forums. Without which, I would have never begun writing on sports on a regular basis.