Earlier today I read a post on The Olympic Effect, a new blog covering gymnastics & figure skating. It was an extensive look at the media coverage that surrounded both Vanessa Atler & Kristie Phillips. One could argue that the media played a large part in the downfall of both athletes. If you are not familiar with their stories, check out the post on The Olympic Effect. It gives a summary for each.

Photo courtesy of www.gymbox.net

While I am not as familiar with the rise and fall of Phillips (too young), I was an avid fan of Vanessa Atler. I believe she was one of the greatest gymnasts of all time. Many factors played a part in her troubled time at the top of the sport. It would be impossible to place the blame on one party. Parents, Coaches, USAG & Media all play crucial roles in the life of a young athlete in the United States. But after reading the post on The Olympic Effect I was particularly troubled by a statement made by a member of the media regarding the coverage of athletes.

From the Olympic Effect…

“Christine Brennan, USA Today’s Olympic columnist, makes no apologies for the media’s treatment of athletes.

“If they [the athletes] step off the sidewalk and join the parade, as Tara Lipinski did at a young age or Sasha Cohen, then they will be examined differently in the National Spotlight than if they had remained on the sidewalk. The choice is made by the parents and the child, and if they are big time players on the National stage, then they are going to get the scrutiny that goes along with that. I have no apologies there; that’s what we do. I don’t want to tear them down. It would be wonderful to continue talking about them in good ways, but if Sasha Cohen can’t do a clean short and long program, as much as I love Sasha, I have to point that out. It is my job and I will continue to do that, as I’m sure will most other journalists.”

While Brennan is referring to figure skating media coverage, Olympic analysts such as Brennan shift gears once every four years to cover gymnastics—the figure skating of the summer games.

Ok, I understand that the media have a job to do. And Brennan is correct in saying that the choice to step into the spotlight, so to speak, is made by the parents and athlete. She’s absolutely right. The choice to put an athlete “in the parade” as Brennan calls it, is first made by the parents, coaches & athlete. However, this does not remove responsibility from the journalist. As I said earlier, the rise and fall of an athlete (especially child athletes) depends on many parties. Once the athlete is in the parade, the journalist is responsible for how they report the story. And it is imperative for members of the media to remember that these are real people, and in many cases when covering gymnastics, children.

Brennan implies that the media have no choice in the matter. She says that “she doesn’t want to tear them [the athletes] down” but that “… it is my job and I will continue to do that.” I don’t think a responsible journalist can say “well, the athlete (or their parents) made the choice to be in the spotlight and it’s just my job to report what I see. If the athlete is torn down or degraded by my coverage, it’s not my fault.” Not so. The media is responsible for how they portray any story, particularly one that involves a child.

The Society of Professional Journalists have a code of ethics which can be found in full on their website. One portion of it deals specifically with minimizing harm, stating that ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect. Here are two of the key points in that section…

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

It seems to me that those covering Vanessa Atler forgot some of these things. And while Atler is quoted on the Olympic Effect blog as saying that she does not blame the media for her troubles, I still believe she was clearly harmed by the media. And no doubt by several others. Like I said, it would be impossible to pinpoint blame on one party but I think each should take responsibility for their role in a situation like Atler’s, journalists & other media included.

And now, because I am a blogger, I feel compelled to reaffirm my commitment to being a passionate and civil writer. In the world of blogging, the blogger is allowed certain anonymity if they wish. Perhaps we feel we can say things in our blogs that we would not dare say in the company of others. The internet has a way of removing personal responsibility, doesn’t it? But I am responsible for what I write. I may critique and give my various opinions but I hope that I am compassionate. I do not wish to degrade another human being or cause them harm, whether adult or teen, and I hope my posts reflect that.

So…what are your thoughts on this topic? I realize that this a complex issue but I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

Be Sociable, Share!