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You want source with that? The mind games behind the coverage of coach sackings

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Expert
24th September, 2021
4

So the Wests Tigers are holding onto Michael Maguire. I’m pleased with that. Coaches are convenient scapegoats and on most of the occasions they are sacked, the decision is objectively unjustified.

By comparison, directors and players have a cushy ride almost all the time.

But what’s really interesting is the reaction to the coverage of the club’s review and subsequent decision. If I’m reading this right, people have been complaining they were reading too much about it and have taken pleasure in the fact that reporters predicting Maguire’s demise were wrong.

Tigers head coach Michael Maguire

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

There’s a bit to unpack here and it speaks to a lack of understanding to how the media is supposed to work, has always worked and the different ways it now works in the digital era.

During the 1996-97 off-season, Peter Mulholland was sacked as Perth Reds coach and replaced with Dean Lance. This was not covered to any great degree on the eastern seaboard – a spill inside the Sydney Morning Herald.

But this was at the peak of the Super League war, with two competitions about to kick off. You can also – kind of – factor into it the fact it was an out-of-town team but when expansion was new in both the ARL and the AFL, the Sydney and Melbourne papers initially covered the new teams in much the same way they covered the existing teams.

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The news wasn’t pitched parochially the way it is today because we couldn’t tell how many people read each story like we can now.

In any case, my point here is: in normal times – with no rebel competitions, no looming apocalypse – the sacking of a coach is the number one beat story in professional sport. When it comes to events that happen every now and then with only the names changing, nothing trumps it for news value.

Remember, the word is ‘news’ – stuff that’s new. A game on this weekend is not new. We all know there’s a game on this weekend. A coach getting sacked happens seldom enough to be new. Sure, anyone who’s ever been a coach will tell you it’s just about inevitable but the timing is rarely predictable.

There are only 16 NRL coaches. If one of them gets the punt, it should be getting blanket coverage. If it’s not, the game is a bit sick. There’s something terrible disrupting the natural order of things.

uke Garner, Daine Laurie and Luke Brooks look dejected after a try by Jahrome Hughes.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Second point, journos getting it wrong.

I’ve been in this position before, of trying to find out if a coach is going to be sacked. Where does the mail come from? Hopefully from the CEO or chairman. That’s your ideal source. If not, a director. If not a director, then a player agent or an official from another club who is mates with the chairman or CEO of the club in question.

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But here’s the rub: the more reliable the source, the more likely you are to get burned as a roundsman – depending on your relationship with the chairman or CEO.

If he’s the sort of bloke who invites you over for a barbecue and names his second child after you, you’re sweet. He’s unlikely to dud you. But if he’s the type with whom you have only a professional relationship, who has never tipped you off on anything before but is suddenly very effusive off the record, be wary. Very wary.

Because our blazered friend might be using you to test the reaction of the public, sponsors and TV pundits regarding the sacking. He might be telling you it’s definitely going to happen so that you’ll stick your neck on the chopping block on his behalf.

Steeden football on the tryline

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

We use sources because without the mechanism, people can be intimidated into withholding the truth. Our objective is to find out what’s happening, not to present you with a neatly packaged quote.

Members of the public, and in this paradigm, people in footy consistently express the fear this convention can be abused by reporters who just make things up. In all the time I worked in newsrooms, I never became aware of a reporter making something up and inventing sources to justify the fabrication. I’m sure it happens.

But the abuse that is far more common is from the other side, where someone will peddle a lie behind the shield of anonymity. You might gain my trust and tell me Darren Lockyer is coming out of retirement to play for the Dapto Canaries.

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I have absolutely no recourse if I write that and it’s wrong. I can never disclose you as my source. It’s on my head. I might quietly plot against you to get square in some way down the track. I certainly won’t trust you again.

But when it’s a big one like whether or not to sack a coach, you might choose to burn me because of what’s at stake. I helped you test the temperature of the water on the sacking and it was a bit too cold for you, thanks very much.

Perhaps the official might make good with the reporter with an exclusive down the track. But that’s how these things work behind the scenes. It can be depressingly transactional.

In short, coaches getting sacked will always be big news – whether you like it or not – and when it comes to ‘sources say’, it’s the source doing the dodging and weaving and lacking courage – not the reporter.

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