Quotable Joe Thornton: Media Ethics, On the Record and Open Locker Room Banter

Bruce Bennett

A look at the deeper media ethics and source-reporter relationship realities at play in Joe Thornton's reported joke from last week.

We leave Joe Thornton alone with the Vancouver media for five minutes, and controversy breaks out.

If you were somehow off the hockey planet last week and missed it, Puck Daddy has a very good summary of the minor uproar here. Essentially, Thornton jumped in on a Patrick Marleau interview after he overheard a question about Tomas Hertl's celebration of his fourth goal against the New York Rangers.

The, um, money quote, as edited by Puck Daddy's Harrison Mooney and originally via Jason Botchford of the (Vancouver) Province:

Hearing a question to Marleau about Hertl and whether he was showboating, Thornton said: "Shut up, have you ever played the game?"

When the press turned his way, he then added:

"I’d have my [rooster] out if I scored four goals. I’d have my [rooster] out, stroking it."

This caused a relatively minor controversy to break out over whether the quote should have been reported in the first place.

A bit of background on me - I was a professional newspaper hack for more than six years and wrote for various outlets in college (including internships and freelance work) for an additional four years. I covered everything from professional football, baseball and rodeo to high school track and middle school golf. I was a team's primary beat writer for two and four year stretches at various stops.

So I like to think I'm coming from an educated perspective on this particular issue.

First, it's very clear Botchford did not cross any true ethical lines by reporting Thornton's joke. There are very clear guidelines for defining when situations go off the record. Given that a clear media-source situation is happening, there must be a request made to go off the record followed by an agreement between the reporter and source, confirming the following conversation will indeed be off the record.

Thornton was in a locker room that was open for media availability and made no such agreement with anyone nor is there any indication he had some of that immediate remorse that sometimes strikes an interviewee. He has been a professional athlete for more than a decade and knows the basics of what reporters can and can't publish.

All that said...

I'm not sure I would have run the quote. That's not because I would care about making Thornton look bad but because it's very obvious this is the type of locker room banter that happens all the time and not intended as some sort of quasi-public statement.

For those of you who've never been in a media session in a locker room, let me set the scene for you a bit.

At the professional level, depending on the league rules, the dressing room/locker room is open for a set period of time after every practice and, for hockey and basketball, after morning skate/shootaround (baseball is a little different because of the every day is a game day nature of the sport, so we'll leave that one out.) The players wander in and out depending on their own schedules - sessions with the trainer, one-on-ones with various coaches, kid has a dentist appointment - and media members try to catch their targets when they're around. Sometimes this happens in one-on-ones, and sometimes it happens in group interviews.

Players are also interacting among themselves during this time, and the overall volume and mood can range from tomb-like (usually the day after tough losses) to a hyperactive kindergarten class. Various media relations staff float around, but for all but the highest profile athletes, it's essentially a free-for-all where media members get their interviews, chat with team staff and players about everything under the sun and generally network.

A ton of of a reporter's working knowledge comes from open locker rooms, and much of it is from something other than the interviews where he (or she) has a recorder out and notebook going. Reporters establish rapport with sources from players to trainers to locker room attendants, they talk with coaches about underlying tactics and things that just don't fit well into a two-sentence quote, and they try to pry accurate injury information out of anyone who will give it to them. And sometimes most importantly, they just show up to take the heat after they have written something critical.

All of those dialogues are, in the absence of an agreement, on the record and quotable. Anything a reporter potentially overhears or sees in an open locker room session can go into the record - and some players avoid open locker rooms like the plague for just this reason.

But there is also a bit of professional courtesy - and, if I'm honest here, source-keeping self-preservation - that goes on in these situations. While almost everything that happens in an open locker room is technically on the record, the vast majority of reporters see no value in reporting every little silly back and forth that happens. The question every reputable reporter asks his or herself before writing something that occurred on the record but outside of an interview is, "Is this newsworthy enough to potentially risk my relationship with the source and this team over?"

Because there is a gray area between that actual interview with the notebook out and just chatting. When you're chatting, most sources expect that you can use the information on the record but probably won't directly quote them (and sometimes directly attribute them.) Quoting or attributing parts of these conversations will often make them angry because their expectation is you're not conducting an "official interview," for lack of a better term, with them.

And when a source gets angry, they often decline to continue to grant interviews or even access to practice in some cases. That leads to the reporter having less overall familiarity with the team, losing touch with some of the ancillary sources that are best talked to at practices and generally losing a little bit of an edge that helps them break news first.

So while the reporter does have every ethical right to quote those conversations, the vast majority don't. It's just not worth the potential risk unless you've got something that is 100 percent newsworthy. That doesn't mean the information goes ignored - good reporters will use the information they glean to inform their writing, to help them ask better questions in recorder-out interviews, to lead them to the next source - but it's just not quoted outright.

That's why I think it's telling that a member of the home media was the one who reported this quote.The Vancouver press, in general, doesn't need to keep as positive a relationship with the San Jose Sharks as the California media. Botchford doesn't care if Thornton doesn't speak to him again or if the Sharks give him only the blandest of bland quotes for the rest of eternity.

And where Botchford loses me on his defense of reporting this in the first place is the relative value of the quote.

While Thornton's joke is quite funny, if lewd, and just absurd enough to point out how silly the whole "controversy" really is, it's not that newsworthy. It's a quote I'd expect to see in a tabloid, not something that wants to be taken a little more seriously. It's only interesting because it's lewd (and humorous), not because it's some untold insight. It's sensationalism over substance.

Botchford, in a public defense of using the quotes, tries to draw parallels between reporting this and reporting something racist that he overheard in a locker room setting. But that's a red herring. A lewd joke - one of 100 that flies around every locker room every day - does not reach the level of a player being openly racist. One potentially effects how worthy an athlete is for fan's support, money or otherwise, and can speak to other troubling concerns within an organization. The other is pre-teen boy humor that everyone expects happens in a locker room setting.

Thornton does have to take some share of the blame here too. Sticking your head into an active media mob around an interview your teammate is conducting is a great way to make sure whatever you say gets caught on a reporter's recorder. He certainly made it very easy for someone to take the quote and run with it, and as a professional athlete who has been in probably more than 1,000 open locker rooms, he absolutely should know better.

But would I have written it back when I made my meager living as an ink-stained wretch? If I'm honest with myself, probably not. I would have laughed a bit, rolled my eyes and decided there was no real value it brought to the debate. If I was really dedicated to writing about how absurd the "outrage" was, I might allude to teammates coming up with more and more absurd suggestions as to how they would celebrate a four-goal game.

There are journalists out there (including at least one of my former editors) who would say that's too soft an approach to take when it comes to professional athletes. These aren't high school kids who may be unaware of on the record versus off; they're professional athletes, full-grown men, who have gone through layers and layers of media training. They know the big picture of open locker rooms.

But being a reporter, especially a beat reporter, depends so much on your source relationships. You want players to feel comfortable talking to you so that when an actual meaningful controversy comes around, they trust you enough to be honest.

You want to be able to defend the times you do run with overheard quotes and information by pointing to all the silly stuff you never reported because it didn't meet a standard of newsworthiness. You want to establish a level of professional respect with the teams you cover - they shouldn't always like you, but my hope was they always could follow my point of view to see why I was writing something that made them crazy.

It's a fine line to walk, and there is some really gray area out there. Fans crave more personality from athletes, but teams want their athletes to appeal to the broadest variety of fans possible, including those with wildly different taste levels for humor. Thornton probably got his hand slapped by a media relations person, and that will only make him (and other players) more likely to show even more palatable personality in the future.

That's potentially a loss for everyone, unless you really like hearing about the true-but-boring lines about taking everything one game at a time or chipping pucks in deep and digging them out.

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