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Charissa Thompson, Sideline Reporting, and the Importance of Accurate Journalism

In a shocking admission, the former NFL sideline reporter and current Thursday Night Football panelist has revealed that she occasionally fabricated reports during her time as a sideline reporter.

This week former NFL sideline reporter and current Thursday Night Football panelist Charissa Thompson made some comments that have caused debate among football fans and evoked charged responses from journalists. On the popular podcast “Pardon My Take”, Thompson admitted that when she was a sideline reporter if she was unable to get an interview with a coach heading back into the locker room that she would simply fabricate a comment, such as being better on third down. Or in other words, something a coach is likely to say that no one would question.

The backlash from journalists and other sideline reporters was scathing, calling Thomson unethical and not a proper representation of the hard work that sideline reporters do on a daily basis. Thompson, after the wave of backlash, took to Instagram to clarify her remarks, apologized for using the wrong words, and reiterated her respect for the profession. But in the eyes of many, Thompson has lost all credibility, particularly among her peers. Fans, who already have preconceived notions about the importance of sideline reporters, have taken to double down on this perceived lack of importance. More than anything, this incident has once again shined a light on the complex relationship between the media and fans, the importance of true journalism, and the inherent sexism that exists in pro sports.

The Often Maligned Sideline Reporter

Sports fans can often be crass people when in the safety of their fellow fans. The amount of times that I have been in a gathering place where a game was being watched and an attractive sideline reporter was delivering an update on tactics or an injury, the same comment would inevitably come up. A crude comment filled with sexual innuendo and a dismissal that this person only got their job because they are attractive. I have seen this with reporters like Thompson, Erin Andrews, Samantha Ponder, and Allie LaForce. It doesn’t matter who the sideline reporter is, the comment remains the same.

It is this recurring instance that has created the narrative about sideline reporters. That they are merely eye candy, and bring no meaningful substance to a broadcast. The irony in this thought process of course is that most sideline reporters have degrees in telecommunications and often have extensive journalism backgrounds. Erin Andrews, for example, had a degree in telecommunications from the University of Florida and had years of experience as a reporter and studio host long before becoming a sideline reporter. But this all comes secondary to many people because she is an attractive woman in a field that is dominated by men.

As many sideline reporters have mentioned over the past few days, the job involves a lot of research about tendencies of a team and their success situationally. It is also one that is predicated on relationship building. A successful sideline reporter will be able to build rapport quickly with a coaching staff to be able to get them to want to say something at half time or disclose information about an injury. It is all part of the give and take between the broadcast and the teams on the field.

Sadly, this is the reality that women face in sports. We see it on social media where men question women who are fans of a team by asking them to name players. Then they take it a step further and say they only like going to games for alcohol and are attention seekers. This is the sports environment that we currently live in, where women are questioned at every turn when it comes to their sports fandom. And this is what is so damaging about what Thompson did. It gave ammunition to the crowd that thinks that sideline reporters are useless in the general context of the presentation of a game. For a position that is dominated by women, to have legitimacy stripped from it sets women in sports back quite a bit, further widening the divide between journalists and the consuming public.

Getting the Story Right

I often look back at the US Presidential election of 2016 as a turning point in the way that we look at media and news. During that election, we were introduced to the term “fake news” and many people began to grow a deep mistrust with the media, and by extension journalists. While heavily skewed in the political space, this questioning of the validity of facts that were being disseminated by the media eventually seeped into other avenues like business, tech, and eventually sports.

The questioning of sports journalism has been one that has been a little different than other mediums, however. Writers, podcasters, and other content creators have been accused of narrative baiting and chasing clicks as opposed to simply reporting the news. This often means embellishing stories to make them seem more sensational (such as a player past his prime being signed by a team and it being reported as a new team signing an “all-star” to generate buzz). This tendency has created a divide between those that comment on sports and the teams and fans that they cover.

Players are often critical of media members because they are assuming that they are being baited into offering up a headline that will generate buzz and make the player look bad in the process. This has been a fear and element of the athlete journalist relationship for many years. The new development has been that fans more and more are siding with the reservations of the player, that the person covering the team for a website or newspaper is looking to paint a player in the worst possible light. This has led to the rise of fan-driven content and why media personalities like Pat McAfee have found success in this new landscape.

The actions of Charissa Thompson (and any other media person that fabricates reports) feeds into the expectation by many that the media cannot be trusted. Opportunities around the highest level of professional sports are rare for many, and with this news Thompson has brought all of her contemporaries into question in regards to the legitimacy of their reporting, further reinforcing the need for more accurate reporting in sports.

Hoping For a Better Future

On the surface of analyzing sports commentary, it is easy to come to a conclusion that nuance has left us. A show that I used to love watching on ESPN was called “The Sports Reporters”, which was a weekly roundtable discussion of the headlines in sports with 4 different journalists. This show offered meaningful and nuanced discussion up until its cancellation in 2017. In its place, ESPN doubled down on sports debate shows like First Take that were filled with regurgitated conversations on surface level topics, filled with a lot of legacy debates and yelling.

As a reaction to that, many people (myself included) have sought to go back to those deeper conversations that go beyond the surface level of highlights and ring culture debates. Many up and coming writers, podcasters, and video creators have attempted to change the expectation of what is being delivered to the masses in a creator landscape that hopefully rewards people for bringing something new to the table.

The reactions to Charissa Thompson’s admission have been very pointed and for good reason. The people that are currently in sports media, whether with a network or independently, take what they do very seriously. Her actions, whether intentional or not, paint a picture of someone who does not take it seriously and has no issue skating by when challenges arise. Her comments are especially damaging to women in sports, who have to constantly fight the notion that they don’t belong in a space that they are so passionate about.

As mentioned earlier, Thompson has issued an apology for her comments on “Pardon My Take”, insisting that she takes her craft and profession seriously. I hope that she is sincere in those comments, because we are at a pivotal point in the way that we talk about sports with so many different ways to deliver takes and content to the masses. The world needs more people like Lisa Salters, an industry legend who in the wake of Thompson’s admission stated:

Trust and credibility. They mean everything to a journalist. To violate either one – in any way – not only makes a mockery of the profession, but is a disservice to players, coaches and, most importantly, to fans.”

The profession of sports reporting is a difficult one, and it is of the utmost importance that we who do choose to report on it do so intelligently, honestly, and credibly. Because if we don’t, we lose a very important part of the storytelling aspect of sports, which is part of the magic of the games that we love so much.

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