Being an NHL fan, like most things nowadays, has become a 24/7, always-connected existence. Advances in social media and the rise of blogging have made each a legitimate source of news, analysis, and commentary. The traditional NHL media has had to evolve with the times in order to remain relevant, something that some outlets have had better success at than others.
In the quest to remain relevant and keep a place at the top of the totem pole in their local (and often national) markets, NHL writers at all levels have some tried and tested weapons in their armory. It's simply not enough to write good copy on match reports for the paper to be read the morning after, or grab that exclusive interview with a star player, because in today's NHL, there are handfuls of other reporters from the same media scrum all producing those same quotes and team opinions.
To get ahead in today's NHL, you need to be seen as someone on the inside: someone who can read GMs minds or give insight on what a team is going to do before it happens. No longer can writers get by with the eloquence and fluency of language. Now you need a network of hockey sources at all levels, the knowledge capacity to fill a book, and above all people who REALLY know what's going on in the NHL to feel comfortable talking to you.
Back in March, when discussing the way NHL media has changed, we discussed the idea that the "best" NHL reporters had moved from merely reporting the news to actually driving the WAY the news was reported, and what stories were covered - we used the term "opinion driving talking heads" in that piece to sum up how reporters like Bob McKenzie don't just report what teams are doing any more.
Their reporting shapes opinion of the moves teams are making and in many cases legitimizes rumors, thanks to their many years of informed reporting and solid fact-checking record. It's generally accepted that anything these "opinion-drivers" are willing to put their name to has been meticulously researched, or comes from sources they trust implicitly.
This, in its own way, means that any reporter who has a nose for a good trade rumor, or who can get the big free agent signing out before anyone else, generally rises to the top in their local market. This has led to more vicious competition as reporters look to earn their salaries. It's also led to some reporters getting a little fast and loose with their definition of the truth, or to decide that there are some previously hard rules that they can now break.
This trend is dangerous, because it encourages some news outlets to go for so-called "hot takes" over informed and nuanced reporting, particularly when responding to big issues or incidents. That is now actively driving some reporters away from the teams they’re covering. Stanley Cup of Chowder has heard from team and NHL sources that certain reporters are (unsurprisingly) treated with far more caution by players during interviews, because the reporter has a reputation for using and abusing any tidbit of information.
It’s at the point where some reporters’ names are passed around teams as untrustworthy. That can only result in a strained relationship between reporter and team. It also makes for tension in the press camp as other, more honest reporters see their own efforts to gain insight suffer as access is decreased.
Being the local "big man on campus" carries power in its own way, with the potential to see anything a reporter says picked up by national news sources and run with it, right or wrong. This has led to the rise of the "impact rumor" - whereby a local reporter looking to stir up interest, page hits, or comments will dangle a possible trade of a big name over the eager mouths of the consumer, whether or not there is any proof or truth to it. And it works. Instant clicks and discussion follow, and national outlets might pick up on it if the rumor is big enough. Eventually, the rumor is either (often) disproven or meat is put on the bones by other local or national reporters. The trend in larger markets has moved from careful research and fact-checking of a story to what can only be described as "throwing poop at the wall and seeing what sticks."
Boston is certainly home to one of these markets, to the point of self-parody. Recently we’ve seen an example of just how bad and desperate rumor mongering can be, with CSNNE’s Joe Haggerty floating "inside" rumors the Bruins were looking to trade Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand - a rumor so wildly off base that DJ Bean saw fit to publicly blow it out of the water only hours later:
Text from very credible source: Bruins obviously not exploring trading Marchand.— DJ Bean (@DJ_Bean) October 12, 2015
The Bruins themselves then saw fit to come out and rubbish the Haggerty rumors, which had by then been picked up by national outlets despite not having a grain of truth to them. The spread and reach around the hockey world of this caused some debate. The scariest thing about the reaction, though, was how many people within hockey media defended what is basically blatant fabrication for clickbait because of the source. Jason Brough of Pro Hockey Talk made the worst of arguments when responding, seemingly ignoring what was right in front of him:
Meanwhile, local reporter Jimmy Murphy’s whole argument to those who criticized this style of reporting seemed to hinge upon citing Haggerty’s "credibility as a journalist" and "attacking of a good man":
Which is interesting, really, since if anyone in Bruins media has consistently proven themselves adept at throwing poop at walls, it’s Haggerty and those of his ilk. For example, remember those Marchand for Marleau trade rumors that did the rounds a few years ago? They’re a fine example of how a team media corps can become so incestuous that it eats itself.
First: Joe Haggerty reports the rumor in a now-deleted blog post.
Second: Jimmy Murphy cites Haggerty as the source for the rumor in a blog post.
Third: CSNNE cites Jimmy Murphy as the source (warning: it's a video).
To recap, a news outlet reports a rumor based on the reports of an "independent" source who cites themselves as the source in a sort of hot take ouroboros. I imagine the journalism students at any college would be having kittens right about now, never mind those with a journalism degree. Indeed, the Marleau rumor was immediately ripped apart by one of CSNNE’s contemporaries (in this case Amalie Benjamin):
Peter Chiarelli: "I have had no discussions for [Brad] Marchand and I have no plans to trade him. ..."— Amalie Benjamin (@AmalieBenjamin) June 13, 2014
More Chiarelli: "... I don't make it a practice to respond to reports in the social media but occasionally it is necessary."— Amalie Benjamin (@AmalieBenjamin) June 13, 2014
This kind of reporting impacts not only on credibility, but also team-media relations. Brad Marchand has been very vocal on his dislike for sections of the media, which probably comes from having his name touted around in trade rumors that are constantly proven false (or in the latest case even denied by both Don Sweeney and Cam Neely).
This is bad reporting in grade school. It’s horrendous reporting when you have a regional and national platform to spout such things on.
In response to criticism, Jimmy Murphy mounted the defense that it is reporters’ jobs to report trade rumors, in a long, rambling article that was long on ad hominem attacks and logical fallacies and short on actual content. Murphy argues that reporters should use their privileged position to give fans insight into their team, and speculating and reporting on trade rumors is a key part of that.
However, Haggerty and reporters like him aren’t giving "insight". They’re leveraging a position to force their ill-informed, lazy brand of journalism on the world in a way that even their own press contemporaries are now starting to attack. As recently as this week, Haggerty was being shown up on the most basic of factual errors on Twitter. He then compounded the issue by attempting to defend it - saying that telling his thousands of Twitter followers a news item about their team wasn’t actually "reporting" it.
Patrice Bergeron and Matt Beleskey both missing from morning skate for Bruins. Flu bug is going around a bit with their players— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) October 21, 2015
Then, around an hour later:
Claude Julien said "personal reasons" for PB37's possible absence. Common knowledge his wife's expecting their 1st child early in season— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) October 21, 2015
However, on being called out on originally saying Bergeron had the flu:
@talkinaway Nobody reported it was the flu. Got to get your facts correct— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) October 21, 2015
That’s a Bruins beat reporter managing to get the most basic of facts about his team wrong. The facts could have been corroborated with about five seconds of "separate hockey source" digging. Then, he refuses to correct himself. That’s not just bad reporting. That’s truly dangerous reporting - the kind of work that would see you fail Journalism 101. Let’s be clear here. Haggerty is not the only example of bad reporting in the NHL (look at Damien Cox and Steve Simmons in Toronto, or ask any fan about who's the worst in their market). Few are quite so uninformed, lazy, and willing to throw anything out there in the hope of eventually being right.
The problem here is that this kind of reporting still gains a national audience, and that the NHL media will defend one of its own. Haggerty is not the cause of all that is wrong with NHL media ills. That he is often cited by national hockey media as a key Bruins source, despite much more deserving Bruins media doing a better job, is a glaring indication of these ills the same way bleeding is a symptom of bodily injury.
Haggerty, and those like him in other markets, write articles filled with personal prejudices. They play favorites with players and staff and hockey code philosophies that were looking old and tired in the 1970s. They are the last bastions of an old, out-of-date reporting tradition that should have no place in today’s media landscape. It’s a tradition that the NHL media needs to look to eradicate. Fans can be, and in most cases are, more informed nowadays than ever before. There are writers in every market fighting for the chance to take NHL coverage forward into the next decade in a way that would leave the hot-take merchants behind. We're in a transitional period, where the traditional reporter tries to avoid being displaced in a modern sports reporting world that has in many ways outgrown them. Any reporter who can't or won't making that transition will harm their credibility and, by extension, that of NHL media as a whole.