So my post from a few days ago, on an SI.com news story that ended with “All of us at Sports Illustrated send out thoughts and condolences to Peterson and his family,” caused quite a buzz on Twitter.
Many readers agreed with me.
Many more, ahem, didn’t.
I was thinking that, perhaps, I didn’t delve deeply enough into why offering such sentiments is—for a journalist—problematic.
So let’s talk Adrian Peterson.
By most accounts, the Minnesota Vikings star seems like a nice guy. He’s courteous, he’s approachable, he’s gracious. I’ve got nothing bad to say about him, you’ve got nothing bad to say about him, most media members have nothing bad to say about him. But, perhaps, the mother of Adrian Peterson’s late son has something bad to say about him. I don’t know this to be true—but, for the sake of argument, let’s say the mother of Adrian Peterson’s late son hates Adrian Peterson. Perhaps he wasn’t involved with the boy. Perhaps he didn’t pay child support. Perhaps he was indifferent, uncaring, crass, rude, smug. Again, I’M NOT AT ALL SAYING HE WAS (literally, not at all). But let’s just say the woman felt this way about Adrian Peterson. Let’s say she raised the child all alone—and right now, at this moment, is beyond heartbroken. Well, how would it feel for her to see Peterson—the man who, in this example, ignored his son—getting all the attention and support and praise? How would it feel for her to read, “All of us at Sports Illustrated send out thoughts and condolences to Peterson and his family”?
Answer: Like shit.
And how do I know this? Because anyone who has covered sports long enough has seen the media praise superstar-athlete fathers for raising their sons when, truthfully, Mom did 99.9 percent of the work. We’ve seen the hurt on these women’s faces; seen the disbelief in their expressions. “You’re kidding me, right …”
Again, I don’t know what sort of father Peterson is. But neither did the author. And, again, news stories cannot contain author sentiment. It’s not the place, not the time, not the medium.
Another point, to those who say it’s OK for writers to place such thoughts on news stories: When is the right time? When is the wrong time? Do we express sadness every time an athlete gets injured? Gets cut? What if the athlete is sort of a jerk (in our eyes)? What if he once raped someone—but a long time ago? Then do we offer our sympathies? Or our happiness? If I’m happy that Joe Flacco finally won a Super Bowl, can I congratulate him? I mean, we’re both Delaware Blue Hens. Does that make it OK?
And what if you change your mind? Good example: On October 23, 1989, a woman named Carol Stuart was shot in the head in Boston. According to her husband, Charles, the two of them were held up at gunpoint by a black man. This led to a massive manhunt—as well as the arrest of a suspect. Charles was the victim; the poor widower without his beloved bride. Should the Boston Globe and Boston Herald have ended news coverage with, “We send all our prayers to Charles Stuart?”
And what of those prayers … when it turned out that Charles was, in fact, the killer?
One final thought: False sentiment sucks. I contribute to Sports Illustrated from time to time and—just being honest—I’ve never sent out thoughts and condolences to Peterson and his family. Not because I’m a dick … just because I don’t actually believe thoughts and condolences can be “sent out” like the mail or a check to the IRS. I’m quite certain not all the people at Sports Illustrated sent out thoughts and condolences to Peterson and his family. Why, I’d venture to bet that nine of 10 SI employees didn’t send out thoughts and condolences to Peterson and his family. Not because they’re anything less than wonderful people. Simply because, well, they didn’t. They just didn’t.
I always tell my students to avoid cliches and avoid generalizations, and deal with reality. True, rock-solid reality.
Report the facts, re-report the facts, print the facts.
It all starts and ends with that.