Tennis Biases: Beat Reporting, Needing Access and Regulatory Capture

As I mention in a previous entry, Tennis Biases: Me and Monica Seles, tennis fans and journalists have their biases. It’s unavoidable, though the best commentators do a good job of hiding their biases. If you follow tennis you will have a bias toward certain players over others. Some commentators prefer stylists to grinders. Some prefer net rushers to baseline huggers. Others like players who fly off the handle, while some like those who take a professional approach.

For example, some commentators love Nick Kyrgios because they view him as interesting, different, and someone who could help grow the game’s popularity. Others dislike him for his behavior and the fact that he hasn’t always given his best effort. Whatever the case, we all have leanings, consciously or not.

Perhaps the most contentious topic in tennis is the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry — which shows just how little real conflict there is in the sport today. Fans are drawn to one or the other for various reasons. I will explain my Fedal bias in a future entry.

The commentators and journalists who cover tennis can have biases that stem from personal interaction with the players. That’s perfectly reasonable. They might like players who give good interviews or seem thoughtful, characteristics that journalists appreciate.

But some biases, or at least the expression of a bias, can stem from the need for access. Let’s say you’re an Argentine tennis journalist. You basically need Juan Martin Del Potro. You probably need him to talk to you. You also might need him to do well in tournaments, because it’s possible that your employer will send you home as soon as he loses. Same is true for Swiss journalists covering Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

Those journalists can be objective, but it’s not easy. The need for access is a deterrent to honest criticism. It’s probably a wiser career move for the Argentine journalist to say Del Potro lost because of a nagging injury instead of saying he choked — even if he choked. (This is a hypothetical example, not a criticism of any Argentine tennis journalist or a reference to any real incident.)

For at least some TV commentators, there must be a tendency to soften their words about certain players they want access to, whether it’s Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Federer or Nadal. I’m not saying no one is telling it like it is, but there are powerful reasons not to. It’s not easy to call out Kyrgios’ lackluster effort in a summer tournament if you think you’d like to do an interview with him ahead of the U.S. Open.

Access and proximity can impact coverage in significant ways. In all kinds of journalism, some beat reporters desperately need access to the people they cover. If you report on the White House, or the Treasury Department (as I used to), or the local city council, it can be very difficult to do your job if top officials at those places won’t talk to you. Some journalists will say “Screw it,” and develop other sources, including lower-level officials. Often those journalists break the biggest news.

Beat reporters who attend all the briefings and are on-site every day often resent the columnists and analysts who occasionally parachute in with an opinion piece or scoop. Totally understandable. The beat reporters will say the columnists don’t really get what’s going on because they’re not around the place every day. Often they’re right. But the columnists have an advantage in that they don’t have to worry as much about pissing off the officials they’re writing about. Their job doesn’t depend on access to those people.

Similarly, there’s historically a lot of tension in sportswriting between beat reporters and columnists. A reporter who covers a baseball team and travels with it most of the season can’t stomach a columnist who — from the comforts of an office or living room — writes an opinion piece proclaiming that the manager stinks.

The columnists will argue that the beat reporters are too close to the team, too chummy with the players and manager. Often they’re right, too. It can be hard for a baseball beat reporter to write a piece vigorously pointing out a bunch of strategic errors by the manager if that reporter has to see the manager the next day. Some reporters can do it.

It reminds me of an ongoing debate in my field on so-called regulatory capture. Traditionally, some  bank examiners at regulators such as the Federal Reserve have desks on-site at the banks whose books they scrutinize. This raises the question of whether those examiners develop a variant of Stockholm Syndrome and develop sympathy for the bankers. For example, maybe the examiners become friendly with bank employees after running into them in the break room or lobby. Perhaps some of the regulators would actually like to get a job at that bank at some point in the future. The key question is whether the regulators get “captured.”

But you could also make a strong case that being on-site allows the examiners more access and information than they could get through occasional visits. If the examiners are honest and properly trained, proximity shouldn’t be a problem.


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