On February 1, Tom Brady retired from professional football. Yet three days earlier, a gaggle of media outlets around the country reported that he had retired, even though neither Brady nor his agent or his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ever made that claim.
For those who don’t follow football (American football, that is, not the sport called football that we call soccer), Brady enjoyed an unparalleled 22-year career as a quarterback, appearing in a staggering 10 Super Bowls (football’s championship game), winning seven of them. To put things in perspective, no other quarterback ever won over four, and no active quarterback has won more than one.
Regarding superstar athletes, many fans of opposing teams tend to hate them. Millions of football fans prayed for the day when Brady would retire, but that day was February 1, not January 29.
Brady is considered by many to be the GOAT. ‘Goat’ used to be a derogatory term in sports, usually applied to the player who caused his team to lose; the opposite of hero. More currently, GOAT stands for ‘Greatest of All Time.’
The New York Times also used to be the GOAT (new standard) as far as newspapers go, but over the past 25 years or so has devolved into being more of a goat (old standard). But this time, just as Brady, who for a football player is ancient at 44, still led the league in touchdowns and passing yards this year, the Times recaptured some of its lost luster by covering the story properly.
Here’s what went wrong: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on January 29 that “Tom Brady is retiring from football after 22 extraordinary seasons, multiple sources tell (ESPN colleague Jeff Darlington) and me.” Shortly thereafter, my email inbox exploded with similar notifications.
I then scoured the Internet and, sure enough, the amount of coverage was suffocating – and irresponsibly premature.
ABC News was one of many to practice an extremely common form of journalistic malpractice, Its headline stated: “NFL Legend Tom Brady Will Retire: Report.”
Journalists have a sacred obligation to inform in the way that is most accurate, not necessarily which generates the most revenue.
But nowadays, countless news operations scramble to outdo one another – like sea gulls fighting over scarce breadcrumbs – by attracting their readers with clickbait.
Here, I’ll try writing one – Headline: “Kamala Harris Says ‘Joe Biden is Losing His Mind, No Longer Fit to Be President.’”
Article text: “Joe Biden is losing his mind” and is no longer fit to be president, said VP Kamala Harris, according to sources familiar with the matter.
In other words, it is easy, and common, for someone to make an outrageous claim and then bury that the information supposedly came from “sources” who are unnamed and are “familiar with the matter.”
In our hypothetical, who would those sources be? Members of Biden’s or Harris’ staff? Cabinet members? Or are they couch potatoes who, while watching Biden speak on TV and studying Harris’ facial expressions, thus becoming “familiar with the matter,” drew that conclusion?
Next, did these sources communicate directly with the story’s writer, or was it second- or third-hand? “He told him that she told her that Kamala Harris said…”
NBC News was a bit more clever, with the technically correct headline: “Report: Tom Brady Retires from NFL after 22 Seasons.” The “Report” in question is ESPN’s, but the way the headline reads is as if Brady is surely retiring, and Report is the type of story it is (as opposed to, say, Editorial). It’s misleading enough to attract the reader to click onto that bait. Sadly, this is what journalism largely has become.
Here’s how I would have done it, and how I’ve always taught my journalism students to do it: first, I’d search for any evidence that Tom Brady or someone authorized to speak for him, such as his agent, made such a statement. Particularly, I’d turn to the Buccaneers’ website to see if they posted anything about Brady retiring. Upon not finding any such proof, I’d write the story accordingly, with the headline: “ESPN’s Sources Say that Tom Brady Plans to Retire.”
ESPN is a premier sports network, so it itself is newsworthy. The story at that point was about ESPN, not Brady.
The New York Times was conspicuous, and correct, in its hesitation to prematurely declare Brady retired. Its headline read: “Speculation about Tom Brady’s Retirement Intensifies.”
As recently as a few decades ago, the Times’ approach was expected. The publication was aptly dubbed “the paper of record.” That perception was so ingrained in people’s minds, that many simply didn’t realize how far from that exalted status the Times fell in the ensuing years. It’s a classic case of living in the past, like someone whose 30-year-old VCR finally broke down expecting to walk into an electronics store and find a new one to buy. But giving credit where credit is due, the Times got it right this time. Hopefully, they’ll keep up the good work and rehabilitate their credibility.
Next, chaos erupted when Brady announced he’d yet to make up his mind about retiring.
Finally, on February 1, Brady posted a lengthy message on his Instagram account that he really is retiring. I checked the Buccaneers’ website again. This time, they confirmed it. At least that helped wash some egg off of the faces of ESPN and many others.
As a Brady fan, I’m sad to see him go. I secretly hoped his Instagram account had been hacked and that message was false. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I couldn’t really believe that. I knew that the story was true, and that it was no longer premature to report it.