The common perception of sports journalists as mere entertainment reporters is far from the full story
Lest they be forgot amidst the furore of the World Cup Qatar 2022 final on Sunday, it is time to pay tribute to some of the heroes of the hour - the sports journalists covering the tournament.
As we remind our readers in the first part of our special series of articles, sports journalism is far from the “easy life” that some may imagine. Sports journalism is not just part of the entertainment industry, a fun way to earn your keep while swanning between matches of your favourite sport.
Working as a sports journalist will test your skills to the limit. One of the most impressive skills I observed as a junior reporter on a national newspaper back in the 1990s was how sports reporters wrote their news stories in advance of matches and then tweaked one of several pre-prepared intros to stick on the top in the seconds after the results of a match were known.
That was back in the days when few of us had mobile phones, let alone speedy internet connections and many reporters had to phone in their reports from public pay phones.
But more than the physical challenges of phoning in results copy from stadiums, was the sheer detailed knowledge a sports reporter would have to master in order to be able to write those incisive, analytical reports before the match had even been played.
That still stands today - given the speed at which audiences expect to see not just match results, but full analysis of matches which have finished just seconds ago. It’s an exceptional skill, and not all journalists are cut out for this sort of reporting.
Then there are the physical challenges involved in covering tournaments and other large sporting events. Lack of sleep, endless travelling, the stress of trying to get interviews with key players and match officials as well as being constantly in demand to provide incisive, knowledgeable commentary along the way. And don’t forget the fans - one mistake and the internet trolling can be legendary from people who are utterly passionate about their teams.
This sort of life takes its toll on the best of us. The tragic death of US sports reporter Grant Wahl in Qatar is one example of this. The journalist had written on social media saying that he was suffering from suspected bronchitis and was exhausted during the World Cup. He collapsed in the stadium while covering the Netherlands-Argentina quarter final. Two other sports journalists have also died while covering this World Cup - ITV’s Roger Pearce and photojournalist Khalid al-Misslam.
Sports journalists also have a unique perspective which can allow them to highlight important social issues and injustices. Take this report from Al Jazeera English which highlighted how young football players from African nations were being exploited by unscrupulous agents promising them a chance at careers in Europe. Or this one about Syrian war amputees being given a second lease of life through football in Northern Syria.
Another example is this report from Al Jazeera about women referees being given more of a role in official games by FIFA and heralding a new era for women in sport generally. These are just a few of many, many social issues subjects that sports journalists can find themselves covering.
Investigative sports reporting is another important area of journalism. From the Sunday Times’ long-running investigation into corruption within FIFA a decade ago to the Al Jazeera Investigation Unit’s coverage of how English football clubs were being bought by convicted criminals to launder money. These are stories which delve deeply into society as a whole via sports journalism.
When it comes to covering tournaments, sports journalists do not limit themselves to the action on the field. In the lead up to the Qatar 2022 World Cup, for example, we saw stories about street children being rehabilitated in Pakistan via football training, and how young footballers in Senegal train on rooftops.
Sports journalists have to be innovative to make it in this industry and not just about sourcing new story ideas. Reporting on player transfers, for instance, takes a special skill. As Vincent Deleck, sports journalists, writes in our guidebook to sports journalism: “There is nothing harder than reporting on football transfers. The information changes from minute to minute. If you want the media to refrain from reporting a player’s transfer from one club to another until it is completely official, that will mean leaving the reporting to social media. If you have to wait until something is official before you report it, there will be no more news.”
Some people have made entire careers out of reporting on player transfers. Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano is now so well-known for his detailed knowledge of this area that he has more than 11 million followers on Twitter. He is so well trusted by fans that some major football teams have even taken to collaborating with him when announcing transfers. It takes a huge amount of work to achieve that sort of reputation as a journalist.
The ethics involved in sports journalism are also a special subject. Sports reporters have a very delicate balance to tread when it comes to formulating sources and contacts who will give them the information they need to follow the transfers market and make calls about team line-ups and match results. In some ways, sports journalists have to be as careful about what they report as financial journalists do to avoid any hint of share tipping, for example.
Overall, the job of a sports journalist is no easy one. So, this is my ode to sports journalists everywhere - long may you prevail!
Nina Montagu-Smith is the editor of Al Jazeera Journalism Review