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February 18, 2002


Sports Reporting: Rules on Rumors


f a sporting event is rigged, that is news. The bigger the sport, the bigger the news. So when tens of million of people saw a sprightly Canadian figure-skating pair perform flawlessly in their Olympic event, only to be judged inferior to an elegant but wobbly Russian pair, the journalists' task was clear: find out if the fix was in.

But was the ensuing coverage more scrupulous than the pairs judging? Or does figure-skating journalism, like figure-skating judging, have its own folkways and methods of attribution, inscrutable to those who report on government, business or other fraud-prone venues?

So it seems. For most of the week, the rule widely followed was: if you have heard it, report it. And while many early reports were borne out — the French judge in the competition was dismissed on Friday for failure to rule impartially — the sources that reporters used to look into vote-trading accusations seemed, at times, obscure.

Among them were:

¶"Unsubstantiated reports" (Agence France- Presse).

¶"Various reports, citing unnamed sources" (USA Today).

¶"Speculation" (The Chicago Tribune).

¶"Rumors" (CNN).

Although some news organizations reported accusations that might have been justified, their origins were unclear. A neutral voice was used by NBC's "Nightly News" ("Allegations focus on possible vote trading between the French and Russian figure skating associations"); ABC's "World News Tonight" ("The controversy is growing in light of charges that the French judge voted for the Russian to avenge a loss by the French dance team to the Canadians last year"); and The New York Times (news/quote) on Friday ("The controversy centers on an allegation" that there was "a quid pro quo" between the pairs judges and their pair-skating peers).

The inescapable lesson seems to be that rigorous attribution rules are relaxed when journalists are reporting accusations of corrupt deals in a world like figure skating, which has a reputation for unsavory dealings. If that logic holds, many Washington reporters may ask their editors to lighten up.

As the anger over Monday night's scoring grew, and the Canadian skating federation lodged an official protest, some organizations — most prominently NBC News, whose network is broadcasting the Olympics — reported that Marie-Reine Le Gougne, the French judge, had confessed to colleagues she had received pressure.

The newspapers and broadcast outlets seeking to match this report were tempted to do it source free. On Wednesday evening, USA Today briefly gave in to this temptation, posting on its Web site a column by Christine Brennan that asserted, without attribution, that the French judge had told colleagues she had made "a deal that would deliver a vote for the French team in the ice- dancing competition later in the games."

The column continued, "There were also very credible reports that Le Gougne is trying to become a member of the important I.S.U. technical committee, and that it's well known that Russian votes are needed to get yourself elected to that post."

That column provoked its own minor controversy: shortly after it was posted, it was removed. When it reappeared, the unattributed material was gone. Bob Dubill, the executive editor of USA Today, said on Friday that he could not comment on any editorial decisions regarding Ms. Brennan's column.

But after the posting, thinly attributed reporting of the rumor became rampant — which Mr. Dubill himself said was a defensible practice. "It's part of a news story if there are a mountain of rumors," he said.

Not all the reports were unattributed. The source named most often was Frank Carroll, a longtime United States figure skating coach. Until last year he coached Michelle Kwan, the gold-medal hopeful; a current student is Timothy Goebel, who won a bronze medal Thursday. In 1980, Linda Fratianne, his student, lost the gold medal to an East German skater, Annette Poetzsch.

It is not clear if that last detail — he has been there — makes him a better or worse source. If James Carville, who coaches many Democratic students, speculated that a Republican politician who stumbled at a public appearance was on drugs, would it be proper to print his speculation? For speculate was all Mr. Carroll did last week. Asked, the day after the controversial competition, for evidence of his suspicions, Mr. Carroll said: "You said there's no proof? What happened last night? Does the I.S.U. think we're stupid?"

Some editors, like Terry Taylor, the sports editor of The Associated Press, argue that it is impossible to ignore Mr. Carroll's stature. Yet some news programs, like NBC's "Nightly News," did just that. As for attribution, Steve Capus, the broadcast's executive producer, said, "I can tell you unequivocally that our sources are within the investigation" being conducted by the International Skating Union.

Gene Myers, the sports editor of The Detroit Free Press, said that failing to report Mr. Carroll's accusations "would be like putting your head in the sand, because it's widely out there."

"It's out there," of course, was the defense for some erroneous reporting initially in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. Tom Rosenstiel, a co-author of "Warp Speed," a book criticizing that coverage, said that last week's skating reports featured "a lot of rumors in the raw."

But the rules in sports are different, no? Ms. Taylor of The Associated Press paused before reluctantly responding, "They may be."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company