The Rules of the Game: A Journalistic Code of Ethics & Self-Regulation

A tifo from the Dark Clouds, the supporter group I belong to who back Minnesota United FC in the NASL
A tifo from the Dark Clouds, the supporter group I belong to who back Minnesota United FC in the NASL

A bit more than two years ago, I decided to turn my affection for soccer into something more ‘productive’ than merely watching matches and drinking beer. Make no mistake, these are noble pursuits, but I felt there could be more I could contribute to enhance the experience and understanding of the game here in a country where many and most are contemptuous of it. So I decided to attempt to become a soccer writer, a sport journalist.

Yet, just because you write blog posts or Tweet or troll on Reddit, doesn’t mean you’re a journalist. Simple fact is there are few professional soccer journalists in the United States. There are many very good soccer writers and commentators, there are several team or league writers or, really, ‘content producers’ and there are thousands upon thousands of trolls and bloggers dedicated to flaming. So when I think of journalism, I think of the kinds of long form writing currently at Howler Magazine, XI Quarterly, or the UK’s The Blizzard. These writers don’t just interview players or coaches, don’t just articulate the team or league’s party line, nor do they write vitriolic or apotheosized opinion pieces.

I am not saying that team/league writers are toadies or not legitimate journalists; my point is that their job isn’t the same as a journalist’s job. I’m also not saying that reporting isn’t a necessary job, it is but it’s not the same as being a journalist. In addition, I’m not saying that opinion pieces can’t be well written or well argued, but editorializing is not the same as being a journalist. These distinctions are permeable because as a sport writer you have to often switch between all of them as well as often merge all aspects in a single piece. Writing is easy; writing well is difficult. Nevertheless, writing well doesn’t mean you’ll be read or even acknowledged. It is a difficult position to be in but the tension has been existent since the beginning of journalism—the tug of war between sensationalism and equitable criticism or analysis.

To the point, the other day I decided to make a list of guidelines for myself to improve my technique while writing on my favorite soccer teams, a way to be more than a fan, more than a mere blogger, more than a acerbic ESPN-esque pundit. It’s a list of guidelines meant to get me closer to real journalism when I know that there are better writers out there than me and that I’ll never be a professional only ever a fan, a blogger, and pundit.

Guidelines for Writing & Commentating on Sport

1. Don’t be a hypocrite.

There’s no worse vice in my mind than hypocrisy. The merging of the tu quoque and ad hominem logical fallacies are the bread and butter of the sports-shouting talking head and the faceless troll. It hides behind the mask of free speech or of innocuous opinion, but in reality it’s the worst (ethically) and best (pragmatically) way to dumb down the populace, buttress one’s own erroneous beliefs, and hedge responsibility.


2. Don’t be negative just for sake of being negative.

Akin to hypocrisy is the urge to simple tear down. It’s appealing because it’s easy; there is no difficulty in being negative. Also, it gives the impression that one is being appropriately critical when in fact one is being barely more insightful than a gossip.

3. Be smart first & be clever second.

Social media has fabricated the notion that it’s more important to be funny or clever than it is to be intelligent. The quip is treated like insight (which it can occasionally be), but most often it is merely a practice in vanity—a way for someone to have attention turned to them or praise showered upon them. Making someone else laugh is difficult and when you do, it’s truly pleasing. Being greedy for that feeling is understandable but it isn’t right.

4. We all share the same goal & we’re all trying to make things better.

There are always factions, cliques, and clans in sport; it is one of the things we love about sport. Yet, these divisions are at their heart superficial no matter how heated or passionate they may be. When it comes to soccer, we all want the same thing—success. We may come at that endgame from the perspective of growth or sustainability or structure, but those angles only flush out the entire enterprise. 

5. Quibbling is not criticism.

Pettiness is the last resort of a poor mind and a bitter soul. A feeble and petulant person is not worthy of consideration. 

6. The benefit of the doubt is your default.

There’s a certain stance that critics—cultural, literary, political, etc.—must always start from if they expect to be taken seriously but be impactful and just best articulate as the principle of charity:

“When there is doubt or question, other things being equal, the fairest and most reasonable interpretation is to prefer a designation of the conclusion that makes the argument valid (and plausible) to one that makes it invalid (or implausible).” Douglas N. Walton, Informal Logic 

7. Most others are smarter than you.

Egoism has been held up as a capitalistic ideal. It is believed by many and most that human beings at their very core are selfish and egotistical. I don’t believe this for a second. This guideline isn’t about humility or, rather, the vanity of showing how humble one can be. It’s about seeing as much of the field as possible, knowing that you can’t see it all, and knowing that others will see it better than you. 

8. Know your blind spots & admit your failings/weaknesses.

Similar to the above guideline, this is more about constantly doing a self-diagnostic and about constantly being aware of what’s going on around you. Knowing the landscape means being transgressive, identifying your personal boundaries and by going beyond them thus expanding your reach. 

9. Be certain, but don’t be afraid to challenge.

At some point you have to be unpopular, that is, you have to state the unpopular. Typically, this means challenging the status quo, but slur or slander is not bravery. You can’t sit on your hands, appeasement doesn’t make anyone smarter or more engaged, but it’s not a sin to work for consensus. Consensus requires deep understanding, serious attention, and the tactfulness to know when to remonstrate. 

10. Never hesitate to apologize, always be reluctant to accuse.

Nothing makes someone more of an ass than the stubborn refusal to acknowledge when one is wrong. In the world of sport, hyper-masculinity, misplaced and injudicious chauvinism, often bully its way into the conversation. If we are not more than this, then we are craven. Candor or rectitude is always easily achieved, have utterly no fallout except among the trifling, and always inspire confident while enhancing intellect.

So there you are. The criteria that I judge myself by. I don’t think I always make it. In fact, I think most of my work falls short, but this is what I should strive toward. If you feel the need to, judge for yourselves:

Soccer Newsday

On the Fire

SWOL, Soccer Without Limits

Total MLS

2 thoughts on “The Rules of the Game: A Journalistic Code of Ethics & Self-Regulation

  1. As one who not only shares your desire to be a better writer, but also a soccer journalist, this is an excellent set of guidelines to write by. And though achieving both may still leave us in obscurity, it’s a challenge well worth undertaking. Preach on, Daniel… preach on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s