Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How speculation becomes a report, and rumor becomes story

In an article, Michael Lombardi includes under the heading "Things I hear..." this nugget:

"The next player to complain about his contract will be Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who missed the mandatory minicamp due to a scheduling conflict."

What is Lombardi's source for this information? Did he hear this from somebody close to Adrian Peterson? An official with the Vikings? Is this gossip among NFL team executives? Is this what Lombardi's friends in the media are talking about? Do deer come into Lombardi's backyard at twilight and whisper NFL secrets to him?

Well, who the hell knows? But unless Lombardi makes a reference to somebody saying this, it is hardly a report. My guess is that this is some speculation and gossip Lombardi has been hearing, probably from a number of directions. My guess is that's why Lombardi put it under the "Things I hear..." category: it's a part of the buzz, a rumor, things NFL people talk about. And it's not exactly out-there speculation: Peterson is an elite player still getting paid under his rookie contract. I would guess that Lombardi is right: at some point Peterson is probably going to want a new, bigger contract, feeling he's outperformed his rookie contract. Speculation in that direction is fairly reasonable.

And I want to make one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with that. Lombardi is trying to write an entertaining July NFL column, and he includes some of the things he hears people talk about to amuse and inform us. That's absolutely fine, as long as we take it for what it is. Unless Lombardi refers to a specific source (even an anonymous source), this is gossip. I can't see anybody reasonably calling this a "report."

Of course things change when you get to Pro Football Talk. Under the headline "Report: Contract confrontation coming for Peterson, Vikings," Michael David Smith refers to Lombardi's mention and writes:

"Michael Lombardi of reports that Peterson will be the next NFL player to complain about his contract."

Lombardi "reports"? Under what standard of journalism does it count as a "reporting" that a writer just writes something he hears with no suggestion whatsoever who he's heard it from? Again, nothing wrong with Lombardi's note here: it's the "Things he hears..." bit, and after all, this is one of the things I hear too (from Lombardi!). But there was nothing "reported" by Lombardi (at least not journalistically: I suppose technically Lombardi is reporting things he's heard to us). There's no "story" being reported.

By the end of Smith's post, he's taken for granted that this unsourced mention in Lombardi's "Things I hear..." portion of a column is truth:

"So it's no surprise that Peterson isn't satisfied with his contract. And it shouldn't be a surprise if he soon takes his dissatisfaction public."

Look, like I said, I think Lombardi and Smith are probably right; I agree with Smith when he says "Players who produce at that level just aren't content to play out their rookie contracts and wait to become free agents." But to call what Lombardi wrote a "report," to refer to his mention as reporting, and by the end to just accept this as a true statement, well, that's how speculation becomes a report and a rumor becomes a story.

(For a good blog post about Lombardi's mention, see Judd Zulgad in Access Vikings. Not only does Zulgad treat Lombardi's nugget for what it is, but he informatively adds detail about Peterson's contract to not only pass on--and further--speculation, but contribute something concrete and meaningful to it).

In this spirit, I am going to start my own feature here, called "Things I discern from the ether..." Feel free to take this as a report: after all, I am discerning it from the ether and reporting it to you.

Things I discern from the ether...

The Mayans stopped their calendar at 2012 because that is either when the Vikings will win the Super Bowl or when they will move out of Minnesota. The Mayans knew there is no reason to keep track of history after that point.

The Spirit Of Fantasy Football no longer resides in the Shadow Of The End Zone; it has moved into Chris Johnson's socks.

The Green Bay Packers are wieners.

Lombardi's wording itself suggests this is not a report, but a prediction. If Lombardi had said something like "Adrian Peterson will soon be complaining about his contract," that could be taken as a report (without a source referenced, I'd still think it a prediction rather than a report, but for now, whatever). But how can Lombardi know Adrian Peterson will be "the next player to complain about his contract" unless Lombardi knows Peterson will complain about it immediately after Lombardi publishes his column? That's a prediction, not a report. What if all of a sudden Joe Flacco starts complaining about his contract today? Then Lombardi's "report" is wrong. And when Lombardi writes Peterson will be "the next player to complain," that suggests he hasn't already started to complain (privately or publicly), which further suggests there isn't a concrete story being reported here.

It's clear this is speculation and prediction; why is Michael David Smith calling this a "report"?

Addendum 2
Here's a parallel:

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is probably going to run for president: there are several pieces of evidence pointing in that direction, so it is not surprising that a lot of political observers talk about it. If Political Pundit X wrote in a column, "I hear Tim Pawlenty is going to run for president," nobody would reasonably claim that Political Pundit X is "reporting" that Pawlenty will run for president, right? I suppose it's possible that Political Rumormonger Y might post something like "Political Pundit X reports that Tim Pawlenty will run for president," but few reasonable thinkers would follow a link to Political Pundit X's column and think that's a concrete story being reported, right? Some might even call it irresponsible for Political Rumormonger Y to take a casual, unsourced sentence and call it a "report," right? That's why we'd know that Rumormonger Y is a rumormonger, right?

Granted, Pawlenty running for president seems a lot more obvious than Adrian Peterson complaining about his contract. But either way, a rumormonger claiming a pundit's casual unsourced claim is a reported story would definitely secure the rumormonger's reputation for (uncredible?) rumormongering.

Addendum 3
So much for reports.


  1. Anonymous5:10 PM

    This is that wonderful time of year when we have nothing to talk about, so people have to make stuff up. I don't doubt for one second that Peterson is going to want his deal re-done, seeing as how RBs have a small window of opportunity to cash in (once they turn 30, they're poison). But this is purely speculation on my, and Lombardi's part, and PFT treating it like an actual news report is a big reason why people hate journalism.

    There are going to be a lot of players looking for new deals in the coming year or so. Peterson, Rice, Edwards, and Greenway are all key starters working under their rookie deals. Ben Leber's contract is coming up after this year, I believe. Ryan Longwell's as well, unless he signed an extension I missed.

  2. This is so true, especially this time of year. Reports seem to see something small and then everyone repeats it and amplifies it. I think it's kind of funny and always wondered what the athletes in the reports think about it. Could the athlete's be influenced by constantly hearing a story? If it is repeated over and over that AP wants a new contract, could he begin to believe that he wants/needs a new contact? The best is when these speculations, rumors, and "stories" turn out to be wrong. The reporters and news make no more mention of it and never apologize for anything. I honestly feel like I could be one of these "experts" if all it takes is a little BS and some fancy words.

  3. Anonymous9:59 AM

    A month later and it is taken as an established fact that Peterson is upset with Favre's treatment and/or his rookie contract and that missing a couple days of mini-camp a few months back was a mini-holdout. From what I can gather all of this was born out of pure speculation. Most sports journalism now is pure speculation/rumors that sometimes turn out true and most often turn out to be not true.


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