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The Pool Jumping Escapade

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or how the internet has made kids being kids a newsworthy item.

Dan Wiederer got off the phone with Danny Green's father long enough to explore the Hansbrough, Frasor and Ginyard jumping into the swimming pool back in April along with various interviews with folks connected to the story. There is also a discussion weaved throughout the piece about the influence of the internet and how the current technology has allowed these kinds of stories to become newsworthy in some respect.

Hayes Permar, a producer at WRBZ-AM 850 the Buzz in Raleigh, was the first media member to post photos of Frasor’s leap online, four days after the event. Permar doubles as a blogger for the Buzz’s Web site, teaming with morning host Joe Ovies to provide a steady stream of amusing and conversation-starting content to their blog audience. The posts on Hansbrough and Frasor drew 90 comments and a steady flow of traffic to the blog.

The reasons were straightforward: here was Hansbrough, the reigning National Player of the Year and the face of college basketball, and Frasor, just four months removed from ACL surgery on his left knee, risking life and limb for a quick thrill at a party.

Amusing? Yeah. Crazy? Maybe. Worthy of discussion? Absolutely.

“It’s pretty simple,” Permar said. “When I’m working on stuff for the blog, I ask ‘What would people find interesting?’ To me, if it’s something that as a non-journalist I’d e-mail out to my crew, it’s probably worthy of being posted on the blog.”

Will Leitch, the former editor of the nationally renowned and often juvenile sports blog Deadspin, also posted the Frasor-Hansbrough balcony leap photos not long after they went up on 850 the Buzz’s Web site.

Leitch’s rule for whether something registers as Deadspin-worthy is pretty simple.

“It has to be funny,” he said. “Or it has to have some sort of news value to something going on in sports. I try to ask myself, ‘Is there something worthy of discussion here or are we just trying to make the person look like an idiot?’ If it’s the latter, I won’t post it.”

Noble enough. But therein lies the fear for critics wary of today’s blogosphere, its “Gotcha” tactics and the sarcastic and often ignorant reader commentary that accompanies many blogs.

Sure, Permar and Leitch may simply be looking for a cheap laugh for their respective audiences. But there are plenty of Web sites and cynical readers that seem to take great pride in hitting below the belt with reputation-smearing photos and sneering remarks.

And it’s not just sports-centric Web sites taking the potshots at athletes. In April, TheDirty.com made waves when it published photos of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart helping a young co-ed inhale a beer bong at a house party.

Some fans and even some beat reporters pointed to the photos as proof that Leinart wasn’t taking his football development serious enough, a heavy argument to make given the limited amount of evidence available.

A slippery slope

So how should beat reporters and other traditional media outlets react to such developments?

“There used to be a general recognition that people’s private behavior would be considered private until it intersected with public issues or the public interest,” said Roy Peter Clark, the vice president of The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “There used to be a line you wouldn’t cross until you had a journalistic justification. But that’s changed in recent times and it’s changed in part because across society there’s been a general loss of privacy amongst people.”

Steve Kirschner, UNC’s associate athletic director for communications, admits he was peeved when newspapers and TV stations began calling him seeking comment on the pool jumping photos.

Tar Heels coach Roy Williams could only sigh when Kirschner informed him of the hullabaloo.

“For what?” Williams wondered. “They’re college kids being college kids.”

Kirschner wasn’t so much worried about damage to Hansbrough’s and Frasor’s reputations but moreso with the precedents being set across the Internet and suddenly filtering into the standards of traditional news outlets.

In his eyes, the idea of an age where the headline “College kids do stupid things at frat party” becomes commonplace is a scary prospect.

“When did this become news?” Kirschner asked.

Those fearful of the Internet’s influence wonder how long it will take before sports coverage recedes into the shady tactics of Hollywood journalism, where celebrities can’t even go to the grocery store or stop for gas without being stalked by paparazzi.

That’s one reason the coverage of the Hansbrough-Frasor incident struck a nerve with Kirschner.

“The photos, in and of themselves, were a very inconsequential set of photographs,” Kirschner said. “And Bobby and Tyler are big boys who can survive the titillation that comes with pictures of them jumping in a pool being viewed. But to me, there’s a larger concept of what has news value and what’s simply for cheap entertainment value and additional hits to a Web site. I think it’s worth asking, ‘Is this the direction that newspapers and TV stations and huge sports journalism juggernauts like ESPN really want to go?’”

I think Kirschner is the best SID in the business, but like most of his peers he is still catching up on what is happening on the internet. As for going after "web hits"using photos like these, that has been the direction ESPN has been going for years. The WWL has long abdicated journalistic integrity and passing along stories simply based on news value which seemed to coincide with Disney buying ABC and ESPN. In other words the bottom line dictated these things rather than journalistic ideals.

The interesting debate here is the definition of what has "news value." The old guard media hold out terms like "newsworthy" as some kind of line in the sand that blogs have blurred in their willingness to post photos of players jumping into a pool or other sorts of extra curricular activities. I tend to think the advent of an instant information age along with technology that allows basically anyone to become a cameraman has rendered the previous definition moot. Even 10 years ago, Frasor and Hansbrough jumping into a pool would not have made the noise it is making now because of the lack of photographic evidence as well as a medium to post it on. Now any cell phone becomes an extension of blogs willing to post the images it captures. Some do it for the web hits, some sites do it because it is funny. I did it because this is UNC centered blog and I thought it was something my readers wanted to see and discuss in this forum.

The criteria I use, which is my own personal interest and the interest level of my readers is sort of what chafes the old media. The whole idea of something being "newsworthy" was originally founded on various journalist principles. However as the media grew into it's own force in this country, many of the principles were set aside in favor of the individual agendas of media organizations. The concept of something being "newsworthy" then became predicated on whether the media wanted to present a certain point of view to the world. Sure a objectivity and truth still played a role but for the most part the old media held pretty tight standards on what was out there. And they enjoyed this bit of power until the internet became a alternative to their message.

The revelation that has come to bear in the past five years is that people have an insatiable curiosity for stories like this. Yes we all still care about the meat and potatoes stuff like what the teams actually do on the court. However, the life blood of blogs has been to augment that with a surrounding narrative of those things that happen outside the games which the media has been long reluctant to talk about. Blogs also thrive on being an independent voice to not only tell the stories no one else will tell but express the opinions that the old guard media will not produce. Blogs are the ultimate grassroots, free speech to the masses movement and in many ways far better connected to what people want than the media strives to be on any given day.

So the basic answer to Mr. Kirschner is, yes it is has news value because the people say it has news value. Photos of the NPOY and his roommate with a newly reconstructed knee jumping into a pool from a balcony has value because we love seeing glimpses of their lives off the court and also because it does raise legitimate debate of whether they were just being kids or being reckless. The value I find is in the fact this forum can avail itself to that debate and render an opinion on it. Also, the instant information age means the media cycles are much quicker allowing more stories which in some cases leads to a shallowing of the substance.

I understand the criticisms of the internet media. While we celebrate the freedom of information and interaction found on websites we also must come to terms with the idea that people will do pretty much what they want without care of credibility. That is the greatest lament heard from the old media that standards are not adhered to and therefore legitimacy is not afforded. The idea that to each his own is the rule of thumb for sites means you never know what you will get out there.

THF adheres to fairly high standards because I happen to regard my own credibility as well as that material I post as legitimate as anything in the media. Yes I am willing to cross certain lines the old media won't but I like to think I do so in as responsible manner as I can manage. I also do not post anything for hit value. While I do monitor my traffic, I do not make editorial decisions based on whether I think it will help me traffic wise. Then again I am also not overly concerned about a bottom line and that in itself can make a huge difference in how certain blogs operate.

At this point in the life of the blogosphere, I believe we are reaching the juncture where certain standards on which blogs can be considered legitimate journalistic expressions and which ones are entertainment only in nature. I think the sooner that happens, the sooner sites like this one can function without people acting like it is a freaking pariah.