Important Skills and Knowledge for Future Sports Journalists

The world of sports and the media industry that reports on it are both vibrant, fast-paced places to work. In recent years, the digital revolution has transformed the way stories are found and written, and that’s created a new agenda and the need for 24-hour content. Although broadcast and traditional journalism have remained key communication platforms, they are adapting their practices and changing to thrive in this new environment. That means upcoming sports writers need to develop a wide range of skills, especially those that relate to social media and digital content creation. These aptitudes will enable them to share stories that reach and engage a nation, or even a global audience, through various platforms.

At university, sports journalism students are taught the value of understanding not just events and sports but the people who drive that world and how a good headline should be spun. As well as players and coaches, writers will often need to interview fans and team personnel to get the bigger picture. That means they need to be excellent communicators and gain the ability to connect with people, either on camera or through the written word. 

How to begin a career in sports journalism

At the beginning of their career, an aspiring sports journalist can choose to advance their skills by taking a qualification. These give them exposure to various competencies and experiences that they’d otherwise miss out on. For people who are hoping to move into sports journalism, online programs at a university like St. Bonaventure could be the ideal solution. The entire Master of Arts in Sports Journalism program is delivered online at St. Bonaventure University and can take just 18 months to complete. It includes masterclasses from respected professional journalists, as well as expert tuition on sports journalist reporting, ethics, and interview techniques from the University’s experienced team of tutors. 

What are the ethical considerations in sports journalism? 

As they cover stories from the world of sports and the athletes that drive it forward, sports journalists need to think about the ethics of their work. Part of this involves maintaining a healthy level of objectivity so that, even when their team loses, they can still be positive about the winning side. It’s also about respecting the privacy of the individuals and athletes who are the subjects of their story. Aside from being unethical, if writers share stories or gossip about people, especially stories that have no journalistic value, they’ll struggle to find sources or interviewees in the future. 

How to combine an understanding of sport with ethical reporting practices 

Sports journalism is not like news reporting or, indeed, any other part of the industry. It’s a unique environment in which fairness and accuracy are prioritized to support the best possible ethical standards. This section looks at how these are followed in practice.

Avoiding conflicts of interest

From disclosing associations and relationships to never accepting gifts and freebies from teams, coaches or athletes, a good journalist will always avoid conflicts of interest. This includes not showing favoritism in their reporting. Although it’s to be expected that journalists, like anyone else, have a favorite team or athlete, their written work should remain impartial and balanced. That’s because if they become known for representing their own interests, it will be difficult to ever win the audience’s trust or be taken seriously as a writer. 

It’s not wrong to have a close professional or personal relationship with an athlete or team, but this information should never be concealed from the public, and it’s also a good idea for journalists to inform their colleagues and editors.

Ensuring stories are accurate before publication

The only information that should be put into the public realm by journalists is that which has been well-researched and is accurate. In practice, that means it is crucial to check and recheck facts and information from sources, as well as avoid sensationalism. This ensures readers can rely on the journalist for the most up-to-date news on their team or sport, and they know it will be accurate. Fact-checking is rarely a one-off endeavor as sports are, by their nature, ever-changing. Therefore, whether writers are attributing quotes, summing up the season or putting together comments from pundits, these all need to be confirmed as current and accurate representations of what the attributed person feels.

Furthermore, most stories have two sides, so each person involved should be allowed to have their say. That shows the journalist is not taking sides if there is any dispute in progress and that their work is seen to be objective. 

Remaining impartial at all times

Impartiality is something that all journalists will strive for, as it ensures they are presenting both sides of the story accurately. It involves writing the story in a way that avoids any personal feelings and balances the facts. Things that can have an impact on the impartiality of a story include misinterpretations, sensationalizing and using inflammatory language. Bias, however subtle, can also hurt a journalist’s image, and it is considered unethical. Bias in favor of or against a person based on their team, gender or background results in incomplete or inaccurate stories. Therefore, staying objective, keeping an open mind and avoiding using personal opinions as facts are all important. 

This idea should be extended to any interviews that sports journalists conduct as these, too, have the potential to come across as biased. The questions asked should be non-judgmental and neutral in tone so the interviewee’s opinions are reflected as accurately as possible. 

Respecting the people who are reported on 

Part of being a good communicator is having the ability to empathize with the people you report on. Attacking, mocking or trying to discredit sports people or organizations is unacceptable. Instead, journalists need to maintain a respectful tone and maintain the privacy of the people they write about in their articles. That means they will never share stories that involve unguarded moments or details of a person’s private life – unless the subject has agreed in advance. In the same vein, many people in the public eye prefer to keep their personal lives private, so writers should discuss which topics are off-limits before starting an interview. It’s about respecting the boundaries of individuals and not pressuring them to speak about subjects that make them feel uncomfortable. Moreover, any journalist who does this is likely to get a reputation for being pushy, and that will damage their prospects of getting future interviews.

Keeping sources confidential

Good sources are a huge asset to sports journalists, and to keep them, writers have to maintain their confidentiality and never reveal their personal information. The nature of reporting means that sports journalists will often be given sensitive information that must not be made public, even if it would make a great story. Players leaving to join a new team, someone being sick for the next game and team strategies must all be kept under wraps – unless the people in question are willing to go public. This is the case even when stories are factual because the ethics of the situation will outweigh the need to publish a good story.

How important is sports knowledge in journalism?

Genuinely understanding sports or the sport that they write about will make journalists far better at what they do. It allows them to use their specialized knowledge to make their work more refined and sophisticated and also provides context for the story. Sports journalism bridges the gap between fans and professionals; it’s a difficult task, but one that is made easier when the writer has built a substantial knowledge base.

As well as sports, journalists must understand the sports industry if they are to write about it well. That means becoming familiar with the terminology used in particular events, as well as the rules governing sports and any related laws. Furthermore, this knowledge should be regularly updated by following the trends and stories that are having an impact on different sports. 

Why are communication skills so important in sports reporting?

Communication skills, along with sporting knowledge and ethical reporting, form a cornerstone of the profession. The main role of a journalist in any field is to communicate stories and news in a spoken or written format. They may know a great deal about their subject and possess many other skills, but it is their communication skills that will make their work stand out. Moreover, they have to interview sources, talk with people behind the scenes and gauge the feelings of a crowd. That means friendliness, confidence, honesty and empathy are needed. 

Sports writers who understand the nuances of communication can report more effectively, and this allows them to achieve better outcomes for their work. Their stories are well-written and informative, but also resonate with the people who read them. This produces higher levels of engagement, both with the writer’s work and the platform they are using, whether it is a social media account or a publication. In turn, the writer has more influence and becomes respected by readers. So, should they wish to influence people in positions of power or hold an institution accountable, they are more likely to succeed. The combined effect of communication skills on an audience is to build trust, and this keeps people coming back for more. 

What additional skills should sports writers master? 

Sports journalism involves the application of many different skills; some can be taught, but others will be refined over time.

Paying attention to detail 

Writers who are searching for more information on a breaking story are likely to come across many sources that are simply not credible. As professionals, they need to check the validity of each source and only report using genuine, truthful sources. That means paying attention to the smallest elements of a story as well as the bigger picture. This ensures that the news which is eventually delivered is accurate. It is mainly about extensive research and then presenting every relevant fact that was available. 

Sticking with it, even when the going gets tough 

Not everyone who has information or an opinion on a sports story will want to speak with a journalist about what they know. When this happens, writers who are dedicated to reporting the truth will have to find the tenacity to stay on track and persist with their struggles. The most successful sports writers are often those who unearth exclusives, but this is not possible if they fall at the first hurdle. 

All journalists will experience failure at some point. It’s important to remember that, although not everyone will talk, some will, and finding them is key. To a certain extent, rejection is part of chasing a story. It’s how the writer recovers from rejection that is the important thing. They may need to find another approach or consider a different source to achieve the end goal. Other experts may be available, other fans may have a relevant opinion, or maybe the focus of the story itself could be changed. Of course, all of this persistence has to be conducted within reason. It is not always appropriate, or indeed ethical, to continue chasing a lead, and in these situations, a new approach is often needed. 

Researching the sports stories that people care about 

The only way to capture every element of a news item is to carry out thorough research. That will involve using a range of different sources to find information. However, that’s just half the story. Once the key data has been gathered, the writer needs to analyze it and format it in a way that’s accessible to non-experts and the public in general. The best research is not just about assembling a series of dry facts; it’s also important to garner opinions, read the work of others and view these sources objectively. This allows a writer to discover what concerns and trends are emerging and how these might feed into the story they are creating. Moreover, research can inform how the writer chooses to compose their finished work; it encourages objectivity and makes for a more accurate piece. 

Digital literacy

In the modern world of sports news, digital literacy is a skill that journalists need to master in order to thrive. They have to intuitively know how to use apps, social media and search engines as these are the new tools of the profession. A willingness to learn or refine these skills ensures writers can broadcast their stories to the largest possible number of readers. However, digital literacy is not simply about using tools and working on platforms. It includes developing an understanding of how meaning is created online and how information is consumed by the public. 

All digital media, whether it’s distributed on a podcast or via a social network, has a political, social, and cultural context. As do the sources, commentators and various other actors involved in content creation. Sound knowledge of digital literacy is useful to sports journalists when it comes to assessing the credibility of a particular source, considering the quality of the information the source provides and whether it is relevant to their story. Being shrewd around digital information ensures a sports writer can spot disinformation or propaganda and concentrate on reliable sources instead. 

Problem-solving skills

Sports journalism, like any other field of reportage, does come with challenges. These can become apparent when a story is being researched, during a live interview, or as a result of something the writer has published. To overcome these challenges, sports journalists need to understand what the problem is and seek solutions. The initial stage in this process is identifying what has gone wrong and why. Asking questions, carrying out research and confirming the facts are all essential parts of the process. Next, it’s a case of working out the scale of the problem and how it relates to the story or the audience in general. With this information in hand, the writer can begin to explore their options for finding a solution.

They will have to be ready to consult with a wide range of sources to gain several perspectives and evaluate each one. This will be done by looking at the pros and cons of a certain approach and considering whether there are any ethical or legal concerns. Problem-solving skills in journalism also include the ability to find solutions. After finishing their research, using logic and weighing the evidence, they will seek a way through the issue. This allows a writer to deliver accurate, quality stories in a way that engages a readership and gets the point across effectively. 

Establishing a career in sports writing

Even before they become good sports journalists, writers need to hone their skills when it comes to finding stories and understanding what fans want to read about. That involves gaining a deep understanding of various sports, although a specialization in just one can also be an advantage. Moreover, sports writers have to embrace digital technologies and ways of working. Traditional media has not gone, but it is not where most writers will make their mark. Once they’ve earned a qualification and mastered the skills, sports journalism is all about hard work and being ready to deliver fascinating, factual and ethical stories. 

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