Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Media and Its Role in All of This

Along with this blog, I am a sportswriter. In my 12-year career I have been blessed to have covered sports from the high school to professional levels, along the way dealing with some great people (and not so great ones) and having some amzing experiences that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I didn't go to journalism school, and didn't begin my writing career until I was 31 years old, so I have learned on the fly and have been lucky to have some great people to work with and look up to as mentors and examples of how to do it the right way.

Because I pretty much fell into the job (I answered phones and typed up scores until one day they sent me out to write), I view my writing career as playing with house money, that anything I get to experience is just icing on the cake. For all of the great things I've done, I feel like I only have one thing left to make my resume complete, and that is to someday cover the Indy 500. Until then, I live out that dream through this blog.

I take my job as a writer seriously, and always try as hard as I can to present a story as objectively as possible, without any slant or bias. I owe that to the people to read it, and I owe it to myself and my own personal integrity.

Over the last three days, I have been reading as much as I can about Dan Wheldon's tragic death in Las Vegas on Sunday. I've read some great pieces, in fact, many of the most thoughtful, heartfelt pieces have been written by my fellow IndyCar bloggers, who have blown me away with their talents.

I also think that the contributions of the drivers themselves, whether articles they have written personally or interviews they have done in print or on TV, have been great and shows the class, professionalism and quality of people we have in our sport. As a fan, I'm very proud of that.

I have to say I am also impressed with many in the NASCAR community who have used this as an opportunity to show their support and express the respect that they have for the drivers in IndyCar. I hope a certain faction of both fan bases takes that to heart.

Unfortunately, I've also come across several that I can only call hit-pieces. Many people have used Dan's death as an opportunity to spread their unfavorable agendas about open wheel racing and IndyCar in general. Many people are totally ignorant to the sport but think because they have a forum to do so they can spew out anything they want anyway.

It's like the line in the movie Wedding Singer, "well I have the microphone, and you don't, so you will listen to every damn word I have to say!".

I'm not talking about people who are asking legitimate, responsible questions...we all should be doing the same to figure out what happened and how we can avoid it happening again in the future. What I'm talking about are the media outlets that are questioning the safety of the series or implying that decisions made by Randy Bernard and IndyCar were made with greed and TV ratings in mind, rather than the well-being of the drivers. Many others are using it as an attempt to kick the series when it is down.

What raised my ire today is a piece in the International Business Times, which can be read here. The reporting, fact-checking, quotes and statistics used in this story might make this the worst piece I have seen about the tragedy. It is both irresponsible and unfair. If this writer wanted to blog this, fine, but to run it in what I believe is supposed to be a legitimate news source and to run it as a news story -- and not an opinion -- smacks of either a) an uneducated writer, b) a serious agenda or c) a huge combination of both.

Another item that has really gotten mine (and everyone else's) attention is the comment from Jimmie Johnson that IndyCar should stop racing on ovals. As soon as those words came out of his mouth, I knew they would take on a life of their own. I understood what he was saying, like many of us, he was invested in the situation. He knew Dan Wheldon and has plenty of friends in the open wheel community. In many places I have said that Dan "gets it" and Jimmie Johnson does too. He understands the history and tradition of the sport and the Indy 500, and wasn't speaking maliciously. He was emotional, it was personal, and all he was saying was he wanted something to be done so he didn't lose any more of his friends. I don't want that to happen either.

His saying what he did is no different than the drivers involved in the accident or ones that drove in the race saying they are thinking about quitting the sport, or Sam Schmidt's comment that he may end his career as an owner. Their emotions are riding high right now, and time and space will make them realize that this is their calling, their passion and what they do. No matter what they say now, you can bet all of them will be taking the green flag at St. Pete next spring because they are racers.

However, Johnson's credibility as a 5-time NASCAR champion gave people the opening to use that to push their opinions and agenda. Forget that Johnson has never driven an open wheel car, they don't care. They can attach his name to their story, and that works for them.

In a 24-hour, 1000-channel, 1,000,000 website media cycle, you have to do something to get to the top of the heap. I get that. But at the same time, throwing responsibility out the window is something that has really pissed me off the last few days. Too many people who know little about racing and the series in general have weighed in on their opinions.

As a friend once told me: you are entitled to your opinion, but you are also entitled to be wrong. The problem is that people who know little about the sport or just have a fringe interest can't separate the fact from the fiction. That's dangerous, especially if you believe like I do that the future of this series is at stake.

In today's world, everyone is an expert -- did I see someone post on Twitter they talked about the accident on 'The View'? -- and unfortunately if a media personality has a shred of credibility with a person, they will believe everything they say. Some people have built careers and fortunes over this premise.

A lot of that is going on right now. Too much bad information is being thrown around, and it's very damaging. I'm not saying that this is a specific case, it happens way too often any time a major event occurs. This time it just happens to be very near and dear to my heart.

Words are being twisted and quotes are being taken out of context just to prove a point or push an agenda. Somewhere there is a line between real reporting and opinion and speculation, but I no longer know where that is. And when I hear people say they get their news from the "Daily Show" I don't think they do either.

I will admit that this blog is written with a pro-open wheel, pro-IndyCar stance. I do this strictly for fun and the chance to do something different, as well as a chance to share my love of the sport with other people, who although I haven't met any of them I call them friends. If anyone ever tried to use this blog as a credible source, I would quickly set the record straight. It's not and isn't supposed to be.

That is the beauty of social media, the ability to connect with people all over the world who share the same interests you do, but its dark side is also being represented here. It's not fair to the sport, not fair to the people involved and certainly not fair the the memory of Dan Wheldon.

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