The objective insider

Over the past few months, National Public Radio has come under fire several times for instances of what some perceived to be imprudent exhibitions of political activity and idealism on the part of associated executives and journalists. Aspects of the behavior in question and the reaction thereto by NPR prompted backlash from both the right and the left.

While the right saw many of the initial instances as smoking guns of their longstanding accusations of NPR being nothing but a mouthpiece for liberal propaganda, those on the hard-line left saw NPR’s very willing capitulation to demands to remove such figures from the boardrooms and airwaves as indicative of the organization’s spinelessness and lack of conviction.

In any case, these events have help to raise the age old question of whether objectivity is possible, or even worthy of striving for, in journalism.

So, what does this have to do with fantasy baseball?

The questions of objectivity in the media and the most worthy journalistic ideals are issues I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering. But reading about this issue earlier in the week when I was originally planning to brainstorm ideas for this column led me to a strange realization about fantasy sports writing, as well as a few hyoptheticals.

To start, I was struck with the realization that writing about fantasy sports, or pretty much being a talking head of any kind within the fantasy sports community, features a distinction uncommon in the world of journalism. (Note that I’m not really elevating what I do to “journalism,” but I will roll with this term because what I’m talking about is very close in spirit and, frankly, I lack a superior alternative.)

As purveyors of advice about fantasy sports, it’s my inclination that people who do what I do are expected by their audiences to have a stake in the performance of the commodities we speak about. This is a rather uncommon dynamic. In fact, in most spheres of advisory-based reporting or commentary, the source is expected to be an expert in the field but not to be active within the market about which he or she is advising.

Within the field of fantasy sports, we take for granted that many of the talking heads participate in drafts and leagues that are totally transparent to the public. If I come out touting a player as deserving of a top-20 pick when the consensus is that he’s a top-40 or -50 pick, I feel my readers should reasonably expect that this player be on several of my fantasy teams.

Even more fundamentally, I assume my readers expect that I should actually be participating in several fantasy leagues in the first place. This is an uncommon dynamic that goes virtually unquestioned within the community.

Conversely, if I were to flip on a random financial/investment advisory show, I certainly wouldn’t expect the pundit on the screen to share with the audience the breakdown of assets within his or her investment portfolio. Certainly, I don’t expect that pundit to own or plan to purchase every commodity he/she suggests I invest in. In fact, there are some pretty strict legal statutes protecting the public against pundits with conflicts of interest.

If you think this is a bit of a grandiose analogy, consider something simpler, of lower stakes, and sports-related. It’s pretty standard for hosts of the weekly NFL preview and pregame shows to pick the week’s winners against the line, but we don’t actually assume any of these folks are laying down bets on the games. Most fundamental of all, actual sports journalists aren’t even supposed to reveal their fan allegiances.

Jumping back to the larger issues at play here for a second, I don’t necessarily think objectivity should be among the utmost ideals of journalism, and I feel there are many unfortunate, unintended consequences of the pursuit of such an ideal that can never be perfectly achieved and may not be all that important in the first place.

Although fantasy sports writing is almost unequivocally never actual journalism, it is defined by two qualities that I’d be tempted to argue as more worthy journalistic pursuits than objectivity: transparency and passion.

By the way, I realize that the word “objective” has two somewhat related meanings as I jump from fantasy sports to the larger journalism world. Fantasy sports writing is often very objective in the sense that it is based on evidence, and I support that pursuit wholeheartedly. I also support evidence-based reporting and argumentation in the wider landscape of journalism.

The manner in which I object to the notion of objectivity is in its meaning as free of bias, or in the way the ideal implies that those writing about things should act as if they are free of opinions of their own. Just wanted to get that out of the way before I went any further.

To the extent that fantasy writers’ biases or intuitions lead them to express opinions outside the objective evidence base, these convictions are often testable in the public space due to the expected transparency of published drafts and public-facing leagues. The simple rule stating that it is okay to have a perspective, as long as transparency and commitment accompany it, seems like a pretty noble would-be journalistic axiom to me.

The second characteristic of fantasy sports writers I find commendable is that they wear their interest in the subject on their sleeves and acknowledge that they, too, have skin in the game. Even if journalists are able to cast aside personal opinion for the sake of their professional obligations, they are expected to act as if the decisions in the balance don’t have an impact on their lives as individual citizens.

Similarly, we are asked to believe that many mainstream sports reporters have no rooting interest in the outcomes of the games they cover or the fortunes of the team whose beat to which they are assigned. I wouldn’t want to experience nationally televised games broadcast by a partisan coverage team, for example, but we are not even really allowed to acknowledge that an announcer who is unbiased throughout a game may have rooting interests of his or her own.

This whole dynamic is one elaborately choreographed display of—frankly—patronizing, cognitive dissonance. Fantasy sports writing is also largely free of that dynamic, much to my pleasure.

So, after sharing these observations, the logical series of questions to follow begins with why fantasy sports writing has been able to dodge this dynamic. Again, the fact that the content is defined by the dispensing of advice does not account for this, since other areas like financial advisory services aren’t defined by the same expectations.

The first reason that occurs to me is simply that the stakes of fantasy sports aren’t high enough to require such standards that, although restrictive, increasingly arcane, and arguably illogical, function as protection against corruption. If I choose to misuse my influence and platform to attempt to disingenuously convince the fantasy baseball playing public that an undeserving player should be hotly pursued next season, there are really almost no ramifications to that.

So, perhaps the ideal of allowing individuals the broadest possible boundaries of free, unadulterated speech within this field is seen as a greater virtue than the abuse thereof is seen as a threat. Certainly, the idea that you can say what you want because nobody cares what you say isn’t exactly new.

The second factor behind this dynamic that popped to mind was the fact that the rise of the internet and internet-based journalism has done a lot in changing the conversation around objectivity in journalism. While old-guard sports journalists are still expected not to divulge rooting interests in teams, the most popular sportswriter in the history of the biggest sports journalism institution ever established prides himself on being a fan first.

Acknowledging that the rise of the internet is largely responsible for the footprint and popularity of fantasy sports, the fantasy sports writing community was largely established within an environment where the standards of objectivity aren’t perceived as one-size-fits all.

This discussion leaves me with two unresolved questions. First, imagine a situation where the fantasy sports marketplace was elevated in the public’s mind to an actual investment-grade endeavor. (This is not so far-fetched given the hi-tech, real-time, in-game and futures wagering options at some of the most highly evolved sportsbooks in Las Vegas and the emergence of a UK-based investment fund tied to a computer program that makes sports bets.)

Would the standards of objectivity in this field change? It’s not that somebody like Matthew Berry is incapable of moving markets, but rather that those markets are seen as unimportant and inconsequential.

My second question is, what if I told you that I don’t even play fantasy sports? (I do; this is only a thought experiment.) Would that matter to you? In traditional “journalism,” that should theoretically make my opinion more credible. Do any of you have opinions whether a learned outside opinion would be more or less valuable than that of an insider?

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Comments

  1. George Purcell said...

    A few thoughts.

    First, let’s take the behavior of a fantasy writer in drafting players.  I see no reason for a writer to be stuck, in any way, to following their recommended tiers in every draft.  One of the exciting parts about fantasy, rather, is trying to come up with different strategies and test them.

    My corollary to this, though, is that I think fantasy writers should have one draft that is their “real team”, for want of a better term, every year.  This might be a long running home draft, one of the expert drafts, whatever.  I assume this is generally what most writers do.  The only “objectivity” I expect from a writer is to not tout results in a “test draft” that go against what their recommendations were for their “real team.”

    Second, on objectivity.  The notion that sportswriters should strive to “objectivity” at all is really very curious.  This is so because nothing the writer writes will affect the outcome of the sporting event.  For journalists writing about public policy, on the other hand, there is an unavoidable recursive effect where promoting their subjective views can change the outcomes of larger questions in society.  (That’s also the problem with financial journalists, with the added problem of direct self-enrichment.)  While fantasy sports may eventually become something with a “market”, it isn’t a “market” that the journalist will be able to profit from or really influence in any way that will generate benefit for themselves.  “Heh, heh, heh, I just caused worthless Zach Cozart to have an ADP on Yahoo of under 100” just can’t have anything more than psychic benefits.

    As far as your second question, not having a “real team” that you judge yourself by, either because all your leagues are “test leagues” or because you just don’t play would make you less credible in my eyes…not because you “should” play to write but rather because you aren’t getting the full information dump during the course of the season that players with a “real team” get.

  2. Tim Stoeckel said...

    Thanks for the article Derek. Excellent food for thought on a Thursday morning in Japan.

    I would say that another reason fantasy sport journalism has been able to dodge the dynamic you describe above is that we, your audience, are probably more educated in the topic you write about than is the case in many other areas of journalism.

    This is so because, first, most of us are highly interested in sports and in the performance of individual players. This interest initially led us to fantasy sports and often grows with ongoing participation. Second, and I think a stronger reason, is that we can verify nearly everything you write by consulting pretty easy-to-understand data which is readily available in numerous places on the Internet.

    This dynamic differs significantly, I would say, from stock advice, for example. When a pundit suggests we invest in X, even after looking at the related data, we can be left wondering whether the company in question has concealed important information. In sports (or at least baseball), we may not always be accurately informed on things like player health, but we can know exactly how a player has performed in the past, and (thanks to sabermetrics) we have reasonably good projections for the range of performance we can expect going forward.

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