Journalism-or lack thereof?

"I'm a pretty rabid sports fan, and I don't gravitate (to) league sites"
Patrick Keane, Senior Analyst for an Internet research firm

ESPN.com, CNNSI.com, the sportingnews.com, and sportspages.com are just some of the sports sites that offer a wide variety of stats, columns, and in-depth analysis. But the comment above speaks volumes about official league and team sites. Objectivity would hardly be considered the calling card for these sites. Generally the sites are run almost as an extension of the public relations office; thus, journalistically speaking, candor or criticism is rare. These site are often used for:

But what about controversial topics that could be the source of embarrassment or discomfort for a league or team? Often, those issues are brushed aside and not dealt with on official sites. This past summer, Baltimore Raven linebacker Ray Lewis was charged, then later acquitted of double murder. The crime took place during the Super Bowl festivities in Atlanta. However, if you were looking for the latest on the trial, the official site of the National Football League, nfl.com, wasn't the place to go. Not one article on the site dealt with the trial, which might have interfered with the League's public relation attempts to clean up its image.

Certainly, such serious charges against one of the League's best defensive players is something that effects the entire League. The charges were a black eye for the league and nfl.com chose not to deal with the issue at all.

According to Chris Russo, the NFL's Senior Vice President of New Media,
"(The site) cannot just be a propaganda piece. At the same time, our central focus isn't to be a news service."



A Change on the horizon?

If the central focus isn't the latest updated information, then what would be the attraction of these sites? As outlined earlier, official sites do provide statistics, depth charts and schedules. But all of this information can be obtained on other sites, such as ESPN.com, which also provide a higher degree of objectivity.

Despite the views expressed by Russo, some official sites are undergoing an image makeover to appeal to a wider audience range. Surprisingly, one of the pioneers for this type of coverage is from a team that would hardly ever be considered a trendsetter in the NFL.

The Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the League's worst franchises in the last 10 years. The Bengals were also one of the last teams to get an official Web site. However, from the same team that once released a punter who criticized the team, came a rather intriguing move. The Bengals hired a former beat writer, Geoff Hobson, from the Cincinnati Enquirer to provide "independent coverage" for bengals.com.

According to Bengals President Mike Brown:

"Geoff's hiring is a major step in our plan to make bengals.com unsurpassed among Internet sites in quality writing and informative content in hiring him, we believe we've put our team Web site a step ahead of the pack. Geoff's byline is known and respected by Cincinnati sports fans, and anyone is our local media can tell you that he has few if any peers when it comes to thorough and aggressive reporting."

Have Brown's lofty aspirations been achieved? Hobson has written several discerning articles on the site, one in particular criticizing Bengal quarterback Akili Smith's play and attitude. Many of these articles are similar to those found on a seemingly objective newspaper site. One news release dealt with a player who could go the jail for a violation of his probation for drunken driving charges.

Are more people visiting the site then? That's difficult to imagine, if only because the Bengals are still the NFL's worst team and they are not the most followed or one of the most closely monitored teams because they have no chance of making the playoffs.



No Such Chiefly Aspirations

While the Bengals official Web site might strive for well-balanced journalism, the official Web site of the Kansas City Chiefs offers a slightly different perspective. The site, kcchiefs, has a section titled, "Truth Watch," which says that other Web sites only provide misinformation and rumors about the team. However, the official site is,

"In a position to know firsthand what is true and what is not, what came to be or what never happened"

Rufus Dawes

The sites claims to be the "truth," but instead it seems only an altered version of other team official Web sites. It defends free agency signings and other personnel moves that were criticized by other media outlets. So the site goes beyond what could be considered public relations inspired news releases. The site is instead used as a forum to criticize the state of journalism with a third party named Rufus Dawes drumming up support for the team.



Dribbling Toward Change?

While the NFL has undergone public relations hits in the past year because of player's legal infractions, the NBA has also suffered from numerous incidents involving players. But nba.com has dealt with some recent newsworthy events, such as the stabbing of Boston Celtic Paul Pierce at a nightclub and Alonzo Mourning's kidney illness. According to Geoff Reiss, senior vice president of ESPN's Internet Ventures, the site "has been willing to climb outside the box."



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