Book Review: Raymond Boyle, Sports Journalism: Context and Issues

Raymond Boyle, Sports Journalism: Context and Issues
London: Sage Publications, 2006. 198pp, ISBN 1-4129-0798-5

Raymond Boyle’s study of the practices and conventions of sports journalism is based upon his long-standing grasp of the nature of contemporary sport media, and his balanced concern with both the interpretive scrutiny of journalistic texts and output, and the nature of the professional world in which professionals in the media work. He has interviewed or talked to 19 or so professionals in the field, and their observations and insights pepper Boyle’s accessible prose and informative text.

The book is primarily UK-based, and the sports journalism and sports journalists whose characteristics we hear about and whose voices we hear are for the most part men, and men whose professional preoccupation tends to be (men’s) association football, that is, soccer. Sports journalism across the globe remains a male-dominated, male-orientated sphere of the news industry, in both written press and broadcasting forms. Boyle acknowledges this in his seventh chapter, where he confirms that all-male enclaves pervade the sports desk of the tabloid newspapers (p. 157). Things seem to be worse in the UK than elsewhere: ‘Across the national press there are no female sports editors, despite … American journalists holding this post as far back as the late 1970s’ (p. 157). Another UK-US difference is noted by one of Boyle’s respondents: the UK sports journalist is more focused on the specialist sport ‘beat’, whereas in the US the journalist could move from one big sport to another (p. 167). The evidence begins to add up to show a rather parochial and patriarchal profile for the UK sports journalist. There have been innovations, of course, including an aspiration post-Nick Hornby towards a more literary style: again, the US was well ahead of the UK game in this, as Boyle’s acknowledgement of Ring Lardner’s early twentieth-century fame and profile in Chicago recognises.

Boyle notes that within journalism studies and research, ‘sports journalism has been largely under-researched’ (p. 12). This is surprising, given the expansion, in the UK media certainly, of sport supplements, sport sections and pages and sport-based broadcasting (in both radio and television). There is clearly an opening here for keen analysts in media, journalism or sport studies. Boyle’s overview will point such analysts in a predictable direction, essentially the study of cosy male preserves reproducing themselves in the name of market forces: recently, the sport editor of a quality UK Sunday broadsheet said to me that there is no point employing writers to cover women’s sports as few people are interested in them. So the format is reaffirmed, and – apart from the Olympic Games and the odd woman superstar – men dominate the content, the writing and the readership of the sport pages.

Whilst Sports Journalism: Context and Issues can be used in dip-in fashion, a chapter here a chapter there, it lays out an analytical framework that pervades the overall analysis. This is what Boyle calls ‘three implicit strands that run through the book’ (p. 2), factors that shape any current sport journalist’s working environment. These are: globalisation; digitisation; and marketisation – ‘key underlying aspects of any analysis of contemporary journalism’ (p.3). It is one of Boyle’s notable qualities that factors of such complexity can be presented with great clarity. His examples of globalisation are the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, but he notes how widely sport expresses national or local dimensions too. His stress on digitisation highlights the new levels of immediacy between producer and consumer, and the controlling capacities of new technologies. The marketisation process emphasises just how much branding and celebrity cultures have influenced trends in the field, how traditional types of sports journalism have given way to differently driven forms of journalistic writing about sport. This overall framework provides an effective conceptual and interpretive perspective for thinking through the particular issues and themes that are raised as the text proceeds.

Boyle prefaces his book with quotes from two sports journalists: the lyrically capable Englishman Richard Williams of The Guardian, on anticipation and recollection of the sporting event; and the debunking Irishman Tom Humphries of The Irish Times on burnout and booze, but also the anticipation of the occasion. The book captures these men’s occupational culture well, mixing original quotes from illuminating interviews with overviews of relevant US and UK research literature, and insider accounts by journalists themselves.

The opening chapter sets up the terms of the developing debate, pointing out the neglect of sports journalism by researchers in journalistic studies, most what writing there is on the culture of sports journalism having been produced by media sport researchers (p. 14). Changes in the direction and style of sports writing are noted here, raising the question of what categories now characterise the sub-genre. The second chapter provides a broad historical overview starting, most usefully, with the US experience, especially the ‘generation of sporting myth-makers’ of the years around the 1920s. The British historical background is more contemporary, concentrating on journalists’ changing relationship with their sources in recent times, the beat system of reportage, and the changing markets – from the local and regional base of the craft, to the expansion of sports coverage across the print and broadcast media, particularly from the 1980s onwards. More might have been made here of the Cold War and the Olympic context and the pivotal moment of the Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympic Games. Most importantly, though, Boyle tackles the ‘growing colonisation of elite sport in the UK by BSkyB’ (p. 55), a new set of political and economic forces shaping the field.

Chapter 3 concentrates on the rise of television and radio and the expanding profile and influence of audio-visual media; chapter 4 on the 24/7 context in which the print media must now compete with the newer media. Things have now moved on a long way from match-reporting and event evaluation; sport is seen as a serious business as well as entertainment, as Colin Gibson, former sports editor of the Daily Mail has noted (p. 92). Chapter 5 considers sports journalism in the promotional age, including the theme of collusion with sources, and provides a riveting little vignette of spin doctor Alistair Campbell’s experience (and ineffectiveness) as media and communications consultant to Sir Clive Woodward on the British Lions Rugby tour of New Zealand in 2005. Chapter 6 homes in on the digital theme, identifying consequences of change such as wireless ways of working, and the growth of freelance writing for an increasing number of outlets. In all of this changing world, though, there are persisting continuities, and chapter 7 confirms the male-dominated base of the profession, quoting the misogynistic Brian Glanville: ‘One can be a woman in print without it noticing you can’t see the lipstick and smell the perfume … But … You’d never trust a woman with something as important as a football result’ (p. 150). The sports journalist’s image and status are reviewed in the eighth and final chapter. Are the sport reporters and writers still the ‘toy department’ of the journalistic department store? Has the profession become more competitive and more professional?

Lynn Truss – who knows a thing or two about market surprises after selling more than three million copies of Eats, Shoots and Leaves – was a columnist and sometimes football writer for The Times in the mid-1990s. Boyle quotes her at the head of his conclusion to the book: ‘Uniquely in journalism’, she writes, the appeal of the journalist ‘to the reader is entirely in the presentation of the simple fact: “I was there”. I saw it with my own eyes; it happened once and it will never happen again”’ (p. 176). Of course it’s more complex than that. Some writers were never there; mediated viewing has its own authenticity; and there are multiple ‘theres’. But Truss conveys the essence of the sport journalist’s challenge, skill and craft, despite the maelstrom of forces that has transformed the context in which sports journalists write and sports fans consume their writings.

Boyle’s book catches the central contradiction of the booming sports journalism business; it is exciting, often edge-of-your seat technologically driven stuff of the cultural cum creative industries; it is also complicit with sources, packaged for promotion, the antithesis of the Fourth Estate role. I send annually one of the University of Brighton’s sport journalism students to work on Arsenal Football Club’s website (in London, England). The students are understandably excited. ‘None of that investigative stuff, Alan’, the web boss tells me. The odd few seconds for a question to manager Arsène Wenger or superstar Thierry Henry might come the keen intern’s way. But as this book demonstrates: ‘The reality for contemporary sports journalists is that getting close to a subject, on their terms, has become next to impossible’ (p. 115). Unless you’re a superstar sports journalist yourself, like the former chief sportswriter of The Daily Telegraph Paul Hayward, writer of/for England soccer player Michael Owen’s sport biography, and lured to the Daily Mail for an annual salary reported to be almost £250,000 (p. 165).

In offering with such lucidity an overall conceptual agenda, stressing globalization, digitization and marketization, and illuminating the practices and contradictions within the profession, Raymond Boyle’s study is essential reading for all students, teachers and researchers of sports journalism. His careful, conceptually accessible and splendidly informed text is vital equipment for both teachers and students in a burgeoning sport journalism field.

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