PtG Article 19.10.2011

Surveying media coverage of Play the Game: Another story about football

Bringing change to the heart of sport was the slogan for the 2011 Play the Game conference. Judging from media coverage of the conference, there is little doubt that the heart of sport lies in football, and its main affliction is corruption.

Football, corruption, and corruption in football were the topics of the overwhelming majority of all articles and blog entries about the Play the Game 2011 conference.

On the opening day of the conference, Play the Game presented the findings of an international survey of sports coverage in media in 22 different countries from all over the world. It showed that the main sport in international print media is football. The beautiful game was the topic of more than 40 percent of the 17,777 articles surveyed, and the researchers labelled it the only ‘world media sport’.

So the world's predominantly male sports journalists – more than 90 percent according to the survey – have their sights firmly trained on football and maybe that explains why football-related stories were those picked up by mainstream media even though there was no lack of other interesting topics in a program packed with presentations about important issues in world sport such as the problematic legacies of mega-events, doping, and participation in sport. And – of course – the lopsided priorities of the world's printed sports press.

A high-level reprimand to FIFA

The first story to travel from Cologne into the wider media world were remarks from a speech by senior IOC member and former WADA president, Richard Pound, about FIFA's efforts to reform itself after being caught up in a number of serious corruption cases.

"FIFA has fallen far short of a credible demonstration that it recognises the many problems it faces, that it has the will to solve them, that it is willing to be transparent about what it is doing and what it finds, and that its conduct in the future will be such that the public can be confident in the governance of the sport," Pound said and encouraged FIFA to do what the IOC did a decade earlier and involve credible third parties to help them deal with its problems.

This story was reported fairly widely, and Pound's thoughts were amplified a few days later when Andy Anson, a former leader of England’s 2018 World Cup bid, decided to break 10 month's silence in order to criticise FIFA's bidding processes and its reform attempts.

"The whole world is watching, in a way. We've seen the comments of Dick Pound, the IOC member, talking about the integrity of FIFA just this week. There's a lot of people watching, a lot of people anticipating but I have to say I think most people are not waiting for great results because FIFA has not had a track record of taking this issue seriously in the past," Anson told Sky News.

Both Richard Pound and Andy Anson are what media researchers term ‘elite persons’ – they are already established with the news audiences and their positions in society give them credibility as news sources. In terms of media coverage it is therefore not surprising that criticism voiced by Pound will be picked up by many media outlets as opposed to criticisms from less prominent people or whistleblowers presenting at Play the Game.

An unexpected confrontation

While the story about FIFA and Richard Pound circulated mainly in the English-language media, another football-related story became big in South American media and blogs. It was the story about the confrontation between FIFA's new director of communications, Walter De Gregorio, and FIFA's harshest critic, investigative journalist Andrew Jennings.

De Gregorio's decision to visit the Play the Game conference and listen to some of its most vociferous critics was highly surprising. FIFA had turned down an official invitation to speak at the conference just it had done for the previous six Play the Game conferences, so to have two FIFA officials amongst conference participants was unexpected and it was seen as a challenge by Jennings who is barred from official FIFA press conferences.

After a presentation that compared FIFA to a mafia organisation, Jennings challenged De Gregorio to reveal himself and respond to questions. A blow-by-blow account of the encounter that followed was published in more than 20 media outlets in South America that picked up a DPA story with the enticing headline "Un periodista británico trató de 'mafia' y 'excremento' a la FIFA" (A British journalist described FIFA as 'mafia' and 'shit').

Why this story should be more interesting for readers in South America than in the rest of the world is not immediately obvious. But from a journalistic point of view, the story certainly held such values as conflict and sensation in the sense that for once the tables were turned on a high-ranking FIFA official who found himself in a situation where he had to reply to at least some questions from critical journalists.

All quiet about the Cologne Consensus

One of the objectives of the Play the Game conference was to move on from pointing out the problems of sport to suggesting how they could be resolved. On the final day of the conference, delegates passed a resolution called the Cologne Consensus which calls on the IOC to gather all stakeholders in sport for a conference before the end of 2012 to draft a code for good governance in sport.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that many international sport organisations are facing major governance issues, this story was not really picked up by the major international media (the Spanish newspaper El País that published several reports from the conference was a notable exception). The lack of interest is quite in line with the International Sports Press Survey which found that sports politics was the topic of only 2.7 percent of all articles surveyed.

Getting the issue of sports governance into the media was by and large dependent on personal interviews with the international director of Play the Game, Jens Sejer Andersen, about the aims of the conference (for instance in Die Zeit, ZDF-Sport and El País), and the speech made by Richard Pound during the conference's opening session.

The local lens

Play the Game is still in the process of collecting news clippings and blog entries about events and stories presented at the conference. It is a major task considering that many of the 330 participants are journalists who have been sending stories home in a number of different languages – and not all articles can be picked up in Google and database searches. Yet, certain patterns already emerge which dovetail nicely with the general knowledge about the dynamics of journalism.

Most of the topics discussed at Play the Game are international in nature but the media mainly interpreted them through a national lens:

  • There was considerable coverage of a variety of aspects of the conference in German media including media based in Cologne. This interest owes very much to the fact that the conference took place in Germany and it was therefore easier to establish it as a legitimate news event in the eyes of the German audience.
  • To get into media outside Germany, many stories required a national or regional angle. In Denmark, for instance many media outlets picked up a story from the national news agency, Ritzau, about the threat of match-fixing. The angle was that the development director of the Danish Olympic Committee during the conference had spoken to journalists about the need to deal with match-fixing quickly in Denmark after liberalisation of the Danish gambling market.
  • Similarly, the sad story of the high price paid by the former president of the former Argentine Volleyball Federation, Mario Goijman, for speaking out against corruption in the International Volleyball Federation was mainly covered by media in Central and South America (for instance in the Argentinian newspaper Clarin).

Back to the sports press survey    And how about media coverage of the International Sports Press Survey? So far (19 October 2011), intensive searches on the internet have only turned up one story – namely an article on the website for the magazine from the Danish Union of Journalists.

That is not surprising either. Journalists are not well-known for their interest in criticism of their own editorial choices, and why should sports journalists be any different?

The German journalist Daniel Drepper who blogged from the conference has published a small article on the coverage of Play the Game 2011 in the German media.