LONDON, Feb 2016 – Did Louis van Gaal offer to quit as Manchester United manager? If so, when? After a defeat to Southampton, as the Guardian reported last week? Categorically not, according to the BBC and the Telegraph.
And what about José Mourinho? Did he write a letter setting out a manifesto for taking charge at Old Trafford? The Independent and ESPN both published reporter Miguel Delaney’s story saying just that. Within hours, others were running pieces knocking it down (although students of the non-denial denial may like to examine the statement behind those stories).
How to explain this cacophony of contradictions? And can anything be done about it?
Some fans have a simple answer to the first question: They think reporters make things up. That may be true in a few cases, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
Gabriele Marcotti explained some of the reasons behind the confusion on ESPNFC.com last week. In short, a lot of people in world football don’t want to speak openly on the record. So they tell reporters things “on background.” Some of those people know a lot, some of them not so much. Some of them — whisper it softly — may even intentionally mislead.
A background briefing may sound like a way to give a reporter some … well, background, or context. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a way for people to say things that will end up very much in the foreground. These things are so interesting that the people revealing them won’t be named or quoted in the story. They’re the ones in the background. At best, they may be described in some largely meaningless way, such as a “source,” a “friend” or an “insider.”
All of this means readers have very little way of assessing the credibility of a story, and it increases the chances that the story may be wrong, because the reputation of the source is not on the line. An unattributable briefing is a famously wonderful way to spread dodgy information.
The stories about van Gaal and Mourinho no doubt came from people the reporters thought were credible and well-informed. Some obviously were more credible and better informed than others, but readers don’t know which ones.
This problem is far from new, or unique to football. Journalists covering politics, the police, wars, diplomacy, business — pretty much any reporting beat — face similar challenges. They’re under pressure to break news, they have a limited pool of sources, and some of those will only talk on background, particularly about things likely to produce the biggest stories.
News organizations, though, seem to have tackled these problems better in other arenas. At least some of the outlets that published the van Gaal and Mourinho stories would not have run them with the same vague or invisible sourcing if they had been about politicians, for example.
In serious political reporting, if a rival outlet alleged your story was downright false, there would be an inquiry at the very least. You would be obliged to come out and say “we stand by our story” or “we got it wrong.” None of this seemed to happen, at least at first, with the van Gaal or Mourinho stories.
Delaney’s story initially ran without any attribution in The Independent, while the ESPN version cited “sources.” Delaney subsequent responded on Twitter that his story was “triple-sourced,” and that he stood by the reporting.
Does any of this matter? It’s only football, after all. It’s the entertainment business! The gossip, the rumours, that’s all part of the fun! But that’s really saying football fans don’t deserve the same standard of journalism as everyone else.
And there are real people at the centre of these stories. They’re not cartoon characters. Van Gaal seems to have been genuinely upset by some of the recent coverage (although Marcotti notes van Gaal also briefs people on background, so it may be wise not to take everything he says at face value).
The best news outlets aim to tell readers not just what they know, but how they know it. What is the source of this story? The word “source” by itself means nothing to a reader. That could be anyone. Is it a club official, a board member, a coach, an agent, a player? Is there one source, or more than one? If it’s more than one, how many?
Football reporters may read this with a withering smile, convinced their sources would simply refuse to be described this way. Football may be a multi-billion-dollar global business, but the number of people with newsworthy information still is relatively small. Even a vague description of a source could be enough to identify them. No doubt there is some truth to that. But this is a battle that’s already been fought, and is still fought daily, by reporters in other fields. They have faced the same argument, and had some success in pushing back.
Any change in football journalism would have to come not from reporters, but from their bosses, the editors. At the quality end of the market, at least, they could decide to apply the same sourcing rules their outlets use for other topics. They could insist reporters push sources to agree to a form of attribution that indicates where a story has come from. Describing a source is no guarantee that their information is accurate, but it would be a start.
No doubt some sources would refuse to play ball, and that would mean missing out on a story, but it might lead to a culture change over time, putting sources on notice that they will have to reveal themselves, at least to an extent, if they want to get their message out.
This may sound like a daft or even suicidal suggestion when media organizations are struggling financially, and clicks mean cash. But the BBC, as a publicly funded, public-service broadcaster, could take a lead. No more completely unsourced reports, no more articles just quoting “sources” — both of which the BBC only seems to allow routinely for sports stories.
Or how about someone else making reliability integral to their brand, saying ‘we only run what we know is true, and we’ll show you how we know’? A sports news outlet that puts the accent on accuracy and transparency? It may sound crazy, but there might just be a market for it.
(Andrew Gray covered two World Cups, two Olympic Games and one European football championship for Reuters. His main experience of ‘beat’ reporting comes from three years covering the Pentagon. It’s not Manchester United but it did involve talking to people even scarier than football agents or Louis van Gaal.)