Colorado Avalanche Writer Fails Ethics 101, Calgary Flames Uncensored

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst INovember 19, 2009

CALGARY, CANADA - OCTOBER 31: Brandon Prust #33 of the Calgary Flames makes his way to the ice for warm-up prior to their game against the Detroit Red Wings on October 31, 2009 at the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The Red Wings defeated the Flames 3-1. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images

Off Limits | Staff Only

There's an old-school sporting ideal which reserves a right to certain levels of privacy and professional discretion, especially within the insulated bowels and back offices of otherwise public forums. In this day of free-flowing information, what kind of confidentiality lies "down the tunnel"?

The “Edit" Button: Technical, Ethical, or Extinct?

Denver Post columnist and blogger Adrian Dater has raised the ire of the Calgary Flames and local hockey media, and it all started with a twit…I mean, tweet.  

Posting a blog following Tuesday night’s game between the Colorado Avalanche and the hosting Flames, Dater also made a backhanded statement of regret for reporting second-hand information regarding Colorado’s Northwest Division foe on Twitter. It was through the social-networking übersite that he disclosed a post-game, behind-closed-doors incident in the Flames dressing room.

There had already been a brief report of agitated voices from the stalls in the Pengrowth Saddledome, explained and accepted as the common post-loss disturbances, which occur in all types of competition. The noisy discourse could not be avoided, but as it obviously was not meant to be broadcast, inadvertent eavesdroppers left it at that.

Then Dater dished the deets.  A prolific writer, the author of Blood Feud: Detroit Red Wings v. Colorado Avalanche: The Inside Story of Pro Sports’ Nastiest and Best Rivalry of Its Era (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006), has made his name as an insider, making no exception when visiting opposing rinks.

Members of the local media had been discussing an argument overheard from the direction of the home team’s coat hooks. Via his web-link, Dater soon relayed the basics he’d heard from Calgary reporters in the scrum room.

It was a no-no. A big one, depending on whom you talk to. This is hockey, where it may seem like anything goes—but in reality, there are serious unspoken codes to be followed, on the ice, in the locker room, and in the press box.  

Many of these unofficial rules reflect the need of personal and professional discretion, a privileged responsibility for those granted backstage access to the fastest game on Earth.

Dredging up a scurrilous detail is devilishly wonderful when it’s about someone else, especially a rival. Squelching the muck-filled shoe onto the other foot isn’t as appealing. As a result, mutual respect of information is the standard among pro organisations, as well as the journalists who cover them—those people who are often privy to truly inside information.

When reporters are plainly left out of discussions, regardless of how loudly they may be conducted, there is an unwritten rule against betraying the expectation of confidence within the confines of a private conversation—particularly for strangers to the team.

And so it goes—with great credentials comes great responsibility.

Twittergate Timeline

It honestly began as a “nothing” moment.

Posting live updates and analysis on Twitter during public events has become a common practice. Dater’s game tweets followed the general sports-twit pattern, a nice assortment of the usual interactive, up-to-the-minute content. Through brief postings, he provided updates, answered questions, and occasionally opined. Suddenly, with the game over, the correspondent became visibly more verbose.  

He started by simply relating the occurrence of a “shouting match” in the Flames locker room, involving Dion Phaneuf being called “selfish.”

When asked by another user if he had heard the argument personally, Dater initially replied that he had heard some of it himself, but there were others who had heard more. He kept 1,200-plus followers posted, relaying the update that it may have actually been Flames' coach Brent Sutter delivering the heat, rather than a fellow player.

One point was made certain: Phaneuf had been the recipient of a shout-out, definitely not the good kind.

Within an hour, it must’ve been apparent that his initial ground-zero scoop-tweet—a “scoot”, or “twoop”—was causing a backlash somewhere, somehow. A reassertion and slight re-tweak of Dater’s earlier dismissal of personal liability was quickly published in cyberspace. In addition to the denverpost.com blog , he popped the character-count of another Twitter comment, clarifying that he did not hear the commotion first-hand.

Responding to the fuss Calgary’s media made following the unwelcome tweet, Dater wrote in his blog that he had assumed the ruckus storyline was fair game because others were talking about it openly, and although he had not anticipated such an robust reaction, he probably shouldn’t tweet such items.

With an oddly contradictory remark, he mentioned that he had heard a similar row between unnamed Avalanche personnel the prior year, but did not report it; therefore, Dater reasoned, this incident should be no big deal. He wrapped it up with roundabout regret, justly saying that that ought to be the end of it.

The ensuing rancour may be just another example of a puck-mad market blowing things out of proportion. The damage done to the Flames internally and externally should be negligible, Adrian Dater’s tweet will rightly pass as a trifle, but the scars on web source integrity deepen.

A Time and a Place

Much ado about nothing, perhaps, it may even seem like homerish sour grapes for Flames' media sources to appear out-scooped on their own patch.  But there are few punches pulled in hockey hotbeds like Calgary, where sports sections feature heavy criticism and overreaction. 

Teams are under the microscope, and comments, founded and unfounded, exhaust every plausible storyline—but, in the bounds of that common code.  

As Dater himself pointed out, yelling isn’t exactly rare in hockey locker rooms.  It happens all the time in any adrenaline-packed activity. Anger and frustration lead to petty comments and harsh criticisms. 

Every imaginable kind of fight has broken out amongst teammates, and it is understood that most are a product of the moment.  If repeating such things were the norm, there’d be a headline-per-day about alleged league-wide dressing room strife.  

Even among the harshest coaches, most carefully consider the critical statements they make to the media, or in public.  They may be tearing a strip out of someone, but generally there is a planned purpose behind publicly exposed actions.  Those who make inappropriate comments or forget basic respect when broadcasting their opinion tend to lose respect themselves.

During the FAN 960 post-game show, Calgary Flames play-by-play legend Peter Maher made a lone, brief mention of the noise he’d heard in the hallway, thickly veiling any knowledge of intrusive details.  Essentially, he stated that there were clearly unhappy folk populating the Flames room after the loss, but that there was no reason to suspect anything other than an isolated incident. 

It was clear by Maher’s voice and words that this was all listeners needed to hear, the limit for legitimate reporting in this realm.  The Hockey Hall of Fame honouree let interested fans know what all-and-sundry could have known, but set the mark as he subtly left it at that.  

When the microphone is turned off, who knows.  Dater claimed a waiver of responsibility due to the chatter in the media room, but discussions within the industry are one thing; relating those details for general consumption is another. 

It’s accepted that professionally-reported information should either be on the record, independently verified, or at least meet the criteria of the aforementioned back-room code.  

Persistence and in-depth fact-finding are admired—telling tales out of turn is no way to get invited back to the circle.

As it turned out, no one in the Calgary sports media, including respected sources for the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun, or The FAN 960 Sports Radio reported any detail of whatever “locker room incident” took place Tuesday. 

Now, everyone is addressing the probable-non-issue thanks to an out-of-towner on the tittle-tattle trail. [See Updates below for a complete follow-up]

Local sources have to file extra reports, fans furiously spread exaggerations, while the Flames themselves will be asked to quash weakly based tongue flap about behind-the-scenes turmoil or trade options.  Their responses will in turn spark further baseless blether.

Distractions are expected.  Unprovoked instigations are not.  

For the Denver Post writer, it was the so-called privileged details and the way in which he chose to share them that have drawn the twitterbug and his offhand comments under fire.

However, Dater neatly turns the blame back onto Calgary media, emphasising that he heard it from the mouths of local press, and that he assumed it would be heavily reported in the city’s headlines by morning.  Rather than waiting for confirmation or customary courtesy period, it was up for all to dissect and disseminate immediately, starting with his Twitter feed and spreading into countless conduits of scuttlebutt.  

Personal assumptions don’t compare to the given, near-universal assumption of select media confidentiality.

There are a lot of grey areas when it comes to such journalistic confidences, but pros are expected to use experience, not just the benefit of their credentials, in deciding what to share with the world. The public are often ill-equipped in sorting the stuff from the stuff, and responsible sources bear that in mind.

It can also help to be sensitive when treading in someone else’s backyard.  In spite of the First Amendment, full disclosure, and freedom of the press, there are times to keep even the juiciest scraps quiet.

Keep it simple—remember The Code.  If you don't know The Code, don't fake it.  Go learn it.

“Wheat, Meet Chaff.  Sort Yourselves Out.”

It was a good piece of gossip, no doubt.  

Remember the Cone of Silence, the fictional techno-fart intended to be a soundproof conversation cubby.  A Plexiglas muffler came down, secrecy intended, yet anyone who cared to listen could overhear every word.  Ridiculously stupid, but the implication of privacy held firm.  

On the other hand, who could be blamed for catching a few words?

It’s not fair to act as though Adrian Dater’s foray into Flames coverage was the ultimate sin.  He’s not the only journalist to report first, ask questions later.  It’s a strategy that has its advantages, and with the blurry, but competitive, bounds of blogging, eye-catching tidbits are coveted.

But while scandal sells, it’s not very well respected—neither is embellishment in a fact-driven field.  For hockey, like most modern sports, it’s a dangerous regression to lowest-common-denominator gratification.  When Sean Avery directed publicly made comments at Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf‘s personal life last year, the first point made by reputable onlookers was that had the insults been kept private, there would be no issue.  

It’s easily argued that the suspension Avery earned showed official reluctance to endorse scandal chasing.  The NHL’s version of the Cone is more successful than the Get Smart variety, but it too sometimes goes on the fritz—it is still expected to apply to all levels and branches of the League.

A few weeks ago, a blogster post regarding Washington star Alexander Ovechkin’s recent injury cited a quote from the banged-up star, saying he would be out for an excessively long period.  This forced the Capitals organisation to make a public announcement contesting the legitimacy of the information, reasserting the previously released recovery timeline.  

The problem wasn’t whether or not the comment had come directly from Ovechkin, but that the details were reported with no confirmation of the validity of the medical information, despite numerous releases contradicting the statement. 

For any writer to not question and resolve such obvious conflicts with simple research, confirmation, or editing doesn’t just tarnish the journalistic standard.  Disregarding reason in favour of a scoop causes real disruption, wasting time, creating unwarranted noise, stealing precious inches of article space, and piling up an unnecessary mess.    

And now, here I am posting even more information about it, much as I did in response to last year’s Avery incident, but once something’s out there, it can’t be taken back.  It has to be addressed and analysed by those tasked with team coverage, draining resources that could be focused on more relevant topics. 

Something to remember when casually making statements in highly trafficked area of online hockey “news.”

Blogs and social network updates are not journalism, and most aren’t fooled into believing otherwise.  But their exponentially increasing influence, especially in “soft” genres such as sports and entertainment, have spawned misuse and misinformation at an alarming rate.  Unfiltered thoughts and details have their appeal, certainly, but the ability to broadcast without borders at a moment’s notice is contrasted by a downslide in the basic quality of communication.  

Who wants third-rate information, which leads to fourth-rate chatter with no real foundation?  How many fans are really interested in that?

The web is already full of unsolicited opinions about sports.  If accredited correspondents continue to blur the line between professional and amateur tactics, hockey’s fanbase will be made up of badly-informed fanatics, and enthusiasts who have given up trying to sort through a fast-food menu looking for a meat-and-potatoes meal.

In spite of the media’s position as official informant, hopefully fans are able to recognise for themselves the difference between fact and fiction, gossip and grist, research and rumour.  

Next time someone, anyone, wipes up presumably restricted dirt from inside the depths of the Pepsi Center, will they hesitate to power up their iPhone or Balsillie Blackberry?  Should they have the right to release hearsay information, on a player’s already-confirmed injury status, squabbles in the locker room, etc? 

Up next, Secret Lives of Player's Wives, Post-Shower Underpant Best and Worst, and Staff-Parking Etiquette.  

If a professional in the business can't discern what is his business to report, why should an amateur bloggist think twice about posting anything they wish, from any source?  It sets a place for an up-to-date tell-all format, more entertainment than substance.

In a strange way, as a blogger, Dater probably did exactly what he was supposed to do.  As a journalist, he should have known better.  At least, he should have resisted the school-kid urge to be first to spread the most recent gossip from enemy turf.

With great credentials...so on and so forth, etc.

Dater, the Scapegoat?

Poor Adrian Dater, I say.  He has and will be vilified by certain members of the sports media for doing what he was sent out to do: observe, report, and if possible, be first to do so. 

Slipshod methods, off-the-cuff format, and scandal-mongering have been infiltrating legitimate news sources for a while now.  Consumer complaints of wavering objectivity, inconsistent quality, second-rate fact checking, and an inability to clearly express the game to less-informed readers are becoming commonplace. 

Mr Dater’s carefree postings could be a glimpse of the downturn, marked for Flames fans because this instance happened at the expense of their team’s privacy.   

There will be those, especially in Calgary, who perhaps-unfairly judge him guilty of some sort of assault on journalistic decency—or, at the very least, hockey decency.  Those people may first need to reassess the system of accepting lowered standards, which has allowed even professionally published writers to forget the rules.

As for assumptions and hastily worded statements, shaky communication skills can’t be a reassuring excuse for a professional writer.

New updates below!  Full quotes, sources, and Twitter feeds also available—considering the @adater account has been deleted by the author.  The feed had been publicly visible, but despite that fact—or an early draft of this article including some of the transcript—I decided to give the author benefit of the doubt.  Like the blogger mentioned below, who posted on another Dater slip-up, I chose not to reprint casual remarks for public consumption.

See the Comments section below for full updates on this hockey/journalism/blogging cross-interest storyline.

M MacDonald Hall is a Calgary Flames Featured Columnist, covering hockey ins-and-outs for B|R and syndication.

Enquiries regarding NHL writing or other subjects may be directed to Mac's Bleacher Report profile or email.


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