Deep Backward Point

Blog against the machine.

Tag: cricinfo

“ESPNCricinfo understands”

I’m old enough to remember a time when Cricinfo did very little first-hand reporting. Then there was a time when they did a lot of first-hand reporting, but never wrote about a developing story until it was confirmed publicly. These days, we get this:

The BCCI president N Srinivasan and his CSA counterpart Chris Nenzani have “in principle agreed” for India to play three ODIs, a warm-up game and two Tests in South Africa in December, ESPNcricinfo understands. [..] India is likely to start the tour with one-dayers. [..] some progress appears to have been made. [..] It is unclear whether the BCCI and CSA have reached an agreement. [..] There is understood to be a split in the CSA board.

Such tortured language. How do I separate what the author knows, from what the author thinks, from what he heard, from what he…

As a reader, here is what I want to know:

  • What is the author sure about?
  • What is conjecture?
  • What is from a first-hand source?
  • What, among these things, is the first-hand source sure about?
  • And finally, how well-placed is the first-hand source?

What I’m asking here may not be standard-practice in cricket journalism, but it is in high-quality journalism around the world. The last line (“there is understood to be“) is the worst offender– understood by whom? Amol Karhadkar (author), the source, people at the BCCI, people around the Cricinfo offices? Also, sources come in many flavors, with many personal agendas.

From Saturday’s New York Times:

“Self-censorship has become the most effective weapon,” said the editor in chief of a prominent publishing house in Beijing that publishes more than 300 foreign titles a year, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The above passage satisfies each one of my issues: I know enough to decide whether I should trust the source, and it’s a direct quote, so it separates the author’s opinion or conjecture from that of the source. I also understand that sometimes an anonymous source can’t be quoted, but can only be used on deep background. In my opinion, that should be rare and be used only when the author is ~100% confident in its veracity.

To be clear, I’m not against anonymous sources. They’re valuable, and I’m sure that without them, there is little that can be written about the BCCI. However, it’s valuable to remember that everyone at the BCCI has an agenda. Everyone. I’m willing to trust your sources, but treat the reader like an adult.

I don’t mean to pick on Amol Karhadkar in particular, but since most of these loosely sourced articles are about the BCCI, they are usually written by him (and Firdose Moonda).

And I’m not questioning the ethics of Cricinfo. They are stellar. I am asking Cricinfo to revise the style-guide (and policies) on anonymous sources.

Notes:

1. I’ve often been asked why I go after Cricinfo when they’re hardly the worst offender. Well, it’s because I love Cricinfo, they have a very high standard and I hold them to it. I don’t read the worst offenders, they’re not worth my time.

2. I once asked a Cricinfo writer about these things on Twitter , and was told “this is how journalism works”. Thank you.

See also: National Public Radio Anonymous Sourcing Guidelines

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ESPNCricinfo and Conflict of Interest

This notice started appearing in ESPNCricinfo articles starting October 11, as far as I can tell:

*ESPN STAR Sports is a 50:50 joint venture between Walt Disney (ESPN, Inc.), the parent company of ESPNcricinfo, and News Corporation Limited (STAR)

I won’t take credit that it happened after my  Cricinfo article, but it did happen two days after Jarrod Kimber’s article on conflict of interest on Cricinfo.

Previously on DeepBackwardPoint.com:

The Case Against Cricinfo

Bottom line, up front: I love Cricinfo. I have for 13 years. But they have incredible power and are increasingly wielding it in a worrying fashion. Here is a call for better, clearer editorial standards.

Editorial Clarity

One of my fundamental issues with Cricinfo deals with editorial clarity. Most respected news outlets have a clear separation between News and Opinion. Cricinfo blurs the lines in multiple ways.

Part of the problem is one of design and signals. The way content is presented on Cricinfo, you are never certain if the article you are reading is News or Opinion.

News or Opinion?

News or Opinion?

This is a subtle example. There are links to three stories interspersed here. One is Opinion, two are News. Maybe it will be clear if we click through to read the stories.

Opinion. Perhaps...

Opinion. Perhaps...

[Clicking through]

Aha, this is Opinion. Perhaps. It says “Features” on top, which probably means it’s not news, and surely Daniel Brettig wouldn’t take such a strident tone against Hilditch in a news article? Who knows for sure.

Which brings me to my next issue– Associate Editor for Cricinfo, Daniel Brettig just called Hilditch a disaster. The same Daniel Brettig also pens multiple News articles on Australian cricket. News articles that are supposed to be objective, free from biases. This may be acceptable (but contentious) if we could tell News and Opinion apart.

Take a look at this article, also written by Brettig. It’s basically the same format of article as the Hilditch story. A lot of quotes from Sutherland, interspersed with Brettig’s commentary on the coach selection process. But this one is categorized as News. Who made the call? Based on what?

It’s a subtle example, but that is why it’s important. It is the subtle cases that matter. If we can’t trust Cricinfo to separate News from Opinion, over time those lines get blurred and it’s all just Daniel Brettig. Sometimes he lets his opinions show, sometimes he doesn’t.

The blurry line shows up too often on Cricinfo. News articles that slip in an opinion about a player, administrator or institution.

Why This Matters

The reason traditional news organizations provide a clear separation between News and Opinion is that different journalistic standards apply to each.

News must be accurate, must attribute reliable sources, and multiple sources must agree for anything to be reported as fact. When reporting controversial opinions, news stories attribute this to a third-party.

These standards do not apply to Opinion pieces. Daniel Brettig can write his own opinion.

If we, as readers, don’t know which one we are reading, how do we know which standards apply? Over time, if the lines remain blurry, we expect (and receive) lower standards from Cricinfo.

In short, if we’re never sure that it’s News, it is never News. It is always Opinion.

Written by Somebody

All of this is made further problematic by the rash of articles without bylines. Let me provide a little bit of background:

Many news organizations make a choice– either they byline everything or byline nothing.

For example, the New York Times bylines everything they write. You will see the name of the journalist who wrote the article at the top and sometimes additional contributors will be listed at the end.

The Economist, however, bylines nothing. Every article is by the Economist. The effect is that the entire magazine stands behind every word. There is no journalist to throw under the bus if something goes wrong– the masthead is accountable.

Cricinfo swings both ways. Usually, as with the Daniel Brettig articles above, they byline their articles. Occasionally, but not infrequently, they put out articles written by “ESPNCricinfo Staff”. Written by everybody and nobody.

Which is fine. Except that once in a while, a little opinion sneaks in to these “ESPNCricinfo Staff” News pieces. Which makes it all the more egregious– not only is this opinion disguising as fact, but the entire ESPNCricinfo organization is backing it up. It is, effectively, the masthead’s opinion.

Want an egregious example? Here you go.

The last four paragraphs are opinion. Lines like “You can feel the gravitas”, and “He flows like a becalmed river,” and “Perhaps in his mind there was no choice at that moment. He simply had to play it.”

Yet, there is no indication at all on this page whether this is a News article or Opinion. Worst of all, it’s attributed to “ESPNCricinfo Staff”. So all of Cricinfo can “feel” Laxman’s “gravitas”.

Independence

Most respectable news organizations structurally separate the News part of the company from the Editorial part of the company. The purpose is to reduce the influence of the editorial side of the house– the Opinions– on what is reported as news. The New York Times editorial board may prefer Barack Obama, and write Op-ed pieces in his support, but they have no influence over what news stories get reported. At Cricinfo, the same writers wear both hats, thereby reducing the trustworthiness of their own reporting.

Finally, there is the issue of conflict of interest. Kartikeya Date has done a tremendous job on this recently, so I won’t reiterate his points here. But the crux of my argument is that when you have opinion writers, you must detail their financial interests in the game.

Monopoly Opinion-maker Status

The reason all of this matters is that ESPN Cricinfo is slowly ascending in to monopoly opinion-maker status. What gets reported there, how it is reported, and how it is presented has the power to change perceptions. To change opinions. And thus change reality.

This is a great power. And as Spiderman said, when you run a monopoly news organization, you should pay strict attention to journalistic standards*.

* Peter Parker worked for Daily Bugle. Editor J. Jonah Jameson’s journalistic standards at Daily Bugle were appalling. What Spiderman really said was with great power comes great responsibility. Actually, his uncle said that. So scratch that last paragraph and replace with: “This is a great power. As Uncle Ben said, with great power yada yada yada.”

Feeding the Trolls in the Cricinfo Comments: Part I

Here is Part 1 of my attempts to feed the trolls in the Cricinfo comments. [part 2]

On Samir Chopra’s inaugural blog post on his new blog The Pitch, Geoff Plumridge comments (UPDATE: it gets better, Mr. Plumridge responds in the comments below too):

The ashes as a pinacle is no myth mate. You other johnny come latelys can only dream of heritage like that. When Billy Midwinter bowled Australia to victory most Indians had never heard of cricket. WE built this international game and the rest of you people only rode on our coat-tails. Remember your place in the history of the game.

Dear Geoff Plumridge,

Thank you for the coattails. To demonstrate their gratitude, the BCCI will allow you to ride their coattails until 2015. In memory of your place in the history of the game, the BCCI will create a museum exhibit honoring you next to the Aztec, Lost City of Atlantis, Titanic and dinosaur exhibits.

Thank you,
Devanshu Mehta

P.S. The Indians had beaten England in an away game around the same time as Billy Midwinter. Have you not heard of the extraordinary late-19th century team of Bhuvan, Mukhiya, Kachra and Lakha?