If you paid attention to Twitter on Thursday, there was a bunch of chatter about reporting and sourcing and journalists conducting themselves the right way. I bit my tongue on this at first, but it really bothered me after awhile and I want to weigh in.
First, the backstory. In case you missed it, a guy named Tom Bowles showed up at the racetrack for the first time in weeks (months?) and promptly reported a rumor that Kevin Harvick might leave Stewart-Haas Racing for Hendrick Motorsports.
From Bowles’ May 16 story on Frontstretch.com:
Multiple sources claimed to me at the track the driver’s been approached with an offer to move to Hendrick Motorsports equipment in 2017, a deal that could insert him straight into Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 car.
Not only was the report not true, but its basis was quite old and tired. Speculation about Harvick had been circulating since February, when SHR announced it was moving from Chevrolet to Ford. Harvick is known as a Chevy guy, so people figured he might be unhappy and try to leave. Maybe, the thinking went, he could even replace the underperforming Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports.
Hmm. Was there any truth to that? Well, the thing to do was to ask Harvick.
So at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Feb. 26, I waited in the chilly wind of the Xfinity Series garage along with ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass and NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan. We followed Harvick to his hauler after he was done with practice, then waited outside until he came out. When he did, we asked him about whether he’d consider leaving.
Harvick said: “You’ve just got to follow along with what your organization thinks is best. I got a great team, I’ve got great people, I’ve got a great organization that’s wanting to win races. To not be committed to them would be foolish on my part; (it’s) the best position I’ve ever been in as a driver.”
Those comments seemed fairly strong, and I took him at his word that he would stay at SHR. Others disagreed, and rumors continued to pop up every few weeks that Harvick might leave.
He was asked about it again on March 11 at Phoenix.
Harvick said: “For me, I’m in the best position that I’ve been in with my team. I feel like I have the best crew chief in the garage. It would be pretty tough to turn around and walk out on everybody who has been a part of building everything that we have built so far.”
Then he was asked about it again on April 7, when he told reporters in Texas: “I don’t know what everybody is talking about because of the fact that I do have a relationship with SHR, the contracts that we are in, the situations that we’re in are already there. I just let everybody just keep talking about it just because there is really nothing to it. I feel like I’ve got the best organization that I could possibly fit with. I think I got the best crew chief in the garage. Got everything that we spent years lining up. It would seem silly trying to do something different. Nothing’s changed.”
That day, Harvick tweeted about it and said: “Looking forward to driving the #4 car for many years to come. Never had more fun racing & love my team. #4thewin”
Look, people lie sometimes. At other times, they dance around the truth. But let me ask you: Do any of the above quotes sound like they’re from someone who is looking to leave?
Fast forward to last weekend, when Tom Bowles showed up at Dover. He heard the rumor somewhere and floated it in his story with “multiple sources” cited.
Obviously, his sources were wrong. SHR announced Thursday that Harvick has signed a long-term extension to remain with the team; Harvick was never going to leave for Hendrick.
So why did some media get so fired up over this incorrect report from what’s essentially a citizen journalist website?
Well, I’ll tell you: Because it makes us all look bad.
Being part of “THE MEDIA” is like being a lawyer. You know how people make lawyer jokes, like they’re all the same? Well people view the media in the same way. The general public has a very hard time differentiating between various media members and outlets.
These days, it takes very little to be considered part of the “media.” There is no license or formal training required, nor is there some sort of media police who act as a watchdog for flimsy reporting and/or ethics. Virtually anyone can be in the media if they write for a website that claims to report news.
But underneath that media umbrella, there are many different standards. For example: At USA TODAY, we are not allowed to use the word “source.” There are no anonymous “sources” because that could mean anything. Instead, we can only cite a “person with direct knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity” based on a small set of qualifying circumstances.
And even if I had such a person, I would have to tell both my editor and my editor’s boss who this person was and why they should let me include their comments in the story. It truly has to be someone in the know.
Other news outlets have similar standards. Why? As a journalist, your reputation is all you have. If you are wrong even 5% of the time, you have no credibility. I would rather get scooped on a story any day than report something I wasn’t sure about. People rarely remember who broke something; if you get it wrong, it’ll always be in the back of your readers’ minds.
Well, Jeff Gluck is reporting that news — but he also reported that Tom Smith was leaving John Doe Racing a few years ago, so how do we know that he’s right?
What’s the point of being a reporter if your readers can’t trust you?
But there are some media members who don’t care as much. I know Bowles doesn’t, because I heard his interview on Sirius/XM on Thursday. He said he learned a long time ago he wouldn’t be right 100% of the time and patted himself on the back for generating conversation in the NASCAR world this week.
Look, I don’t dislike Bowles as a person. I’ve gotten along with him when I see him. But professionally, his methods truly bother me. When you play fast and loose with journalism rules — unapologetically so — this is what happens:
I’m excited about Kevin’s extension today. Wonder how a lot of the media feel about their “reliable sources” today ????#sourcesblewit
— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) May 19, 2016
Of course, there was never “a lot of the media” who reported something about Harvick with sources. There was one person. But drivers, like the general public, often don’t (or can’t) separate the media. It’s all one big group to them. And to be honest, they shouldn’t have to.
Maybe I’m just old-school, but if you get a credential and present yourself as part of the media, you should have the decency to conduct yourself in a certain way. I was upset with Bowles for cheering in the press box at the 2011 Daytona 500 and I’m upset with him again today for bringing this shame upon a bunch of hard-working professionals who try do to things the right way.
Unfortunately for anyone in the NASCAR media, the average NASCAR fan probably thinks there were many false reports in the media about Harvick’s contract. To my knowledge, there was only one — but that one has cost all of us a little of our credibility today. And I’m not happy about it.
Let’s play a game. What has better information about things I do.
— Kevin Harvick (@KevinHarvick) May 17, 2016