The dramatic -- and now debunked -- tale of Josh Shaw rescuing his 7-year-old nephew from drowning didn’t originate with a newspaper or television station covering USC.
Instead, six paragraphs published at 3:29 p.m. Monday on the athletic department’s website transformed the senior defensive back into the subject of national adulation in a matter of minutes.
This wasn’t a news release or transcript of Coach Steve Sarkisian speaking to assembled media. This was a news story, complete with byline and reader comments, by the Athletic Department’s director of social media, continuing a years-long trend of major university athletic departments reporting on themselves in manner that a casual observer may find difficult to differentiate from a regular media outlet.
Some departments have hired former beat writers to write news stories, features and analysis, venturing far beyond the traditional game notes and news releases, as their content-producing operations attempt to rival the traditional media outlets covering them.
“If you’re in the business of telling stories, you need to make sure your stories are accurate,” said Welch Suggs, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, who has examined the trend. “On a team website, you know they’re going to present the story in the best possible light. But you also have a responsibility not to lie to your audience.”
Other media outlets, including The Times, quickly picked up USC’s story on Shaw, as the original piece rolled up tens of thousands of mentions on social media.
Less than 24 hours later, Sarkisian said the university received conflicting accounts about what actually occurred. On Wednesday afternoon, Shaw admitted he lied about the incident.
“There’s obviously a self-serving interest to any story that comes out of a university athletic department,” said Daniel Durbin, director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society. "They want to protect the athlete. They want to protect the university. They want to protect the bottom line.”
Suggs sees the imbroglio as raising questions of trust for all involved -- and highlighting the gray areas encountered by university-run media as they provide an outlet for universities to release stories on their terms to amiable reporters.
“People don’t look at bylines … they trust brands,” Suggs said. “For journalists, after you have a story like this, it affects your own credibility and the credibility of your organization. But for the general public, they’re probably not going to make a distinction between whether USC’s public relations staff got hoodwinked in the same way that other media outlets got hoodwinked.”
Such athletic department content producers are brought on as part of efforts to create a positive narrative and help to build a brand, Durbin believes. These goals are often in conflict with a mainstream journalist’s call to be objective and truthful.
“If there’s anything less than scrupulously honest in the story that’s created or helped to be created … it’s going to be found out,” Durbin said. “You have to be very careful they don’t set you up for trouble.”
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