Pam Oliver: Sideline reporters should be journalists, not celebrities
Pam Oliver knew she had a captive audience to deliver her message.
“The journalism has to matter,” Oliver said repeatedly at Northwestern Tuesday as part of the Medill School of Journalism’s “Beyond The Box Score” series.
She joined USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, Rachel Nichols of CNN and Turner Sports, and ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth on a panel titled, “The Female Voice in Sports Media.”
Oliver, who was Fox Sports’ top sideline reporter for the NFL for years, made headlines last year for her honest reaction to Fox moving her off that assignment and replacing her with the younger Erin Andrews.
When Brennan, who moderated the session, asked the panelists to open by giving their assessments of the media landscape as it relates to the female voice, Oliver saw a room full of young aspiring women journalists. She is concerned that building a solid journalism foundation has become secondary for many students who want a career in sports. Many seem to be more attracted to the celebrity of being a sideline reporter.
Oliver clearly wanted to set them on the right path.
“It’s a small club of women (in sports media) who put journalism first,” Oliver said. “They’re not in it to be celebrities or big on Twitter. You can tell when someone is serious with what they are doing. You can tell when someone is putting in the hours to get to know the players and coaches beyond just using your looks, or you know, your assets.
“I wish some of the hiring practices would improve. There’s a definite pattern with a certain look and certain quality that the outlets are going after.”
At this point, Oliver paused and took a sip of water. She admitted the issue gets her “emotional.”
“I just want to see passion out there and young people who are in it for the right reason,” Oliver continued. “It’s not about wanting to be seen on TV. It’s about wanting to be a journalist. I hope and pray as I look around the room that you’re willing to do the work.”
Oliver eventually finished her monologue by saying, “It’s the journalism, it’s the journalism.”
ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who followed the session online, echoed Oliver’s sentiment with this tweet: “Think one of the issues w/ aspiring sideline reporters I often meet is too many want to be famous, not journalists.”
Brennan has a similar concern about a narrow focus. An alum and still actively involved with Medill, she encounters many women journalism students throughout the country. The vast majority want to be the next Erin Andrews on TV, not the next Christine Brennan as an accomplished columnist.
“It seems like for a lot of these people, it is all about looks,” Brennan said. “Well, looks come and go.”
Nichols said it is natural that many students want to be sideline reporters. It is the predominant role for women on sports television these days, including for Nichols who does sideline reporting for the NBA on TNT.
However, Nichols also has other duties on CNN and Turner Sports, allowing her to weigh in about all sports. She says it is a positive trend that is happening elsewhere for women at other platforms. Nichols contends as opportunities expand for women, perspectives will change for the next wave.
“You would love to see women in positions to try to do other things,” Nichols said. “You just need someone to turn the light on sometimes.”
Hubbarth, the relative newcomer in the group as a 2007 Northwestern grad, implored the women students to keep all of their options open. She said the road to her becoming a “SportsCenter” anchor and host of ESPN’s studio shows for the NBA started with a first job as a sports producer for mobile phone content.
“Do everything you can to understand every aspect” of sports media, Hubbarth said. “You never know what doors will open up for you.”
If that door leads to a young woman becoming a sideline reporter, great. Oliver, though, stresses it has to start with the proper emphasis.
“What’s wrong with just being a reporter first and letting everything else fall where it may?” Oliver said.
After the 90-minute session ended, several students lined up to chat individually with Oliver. Again, she hammered the same theme: Do the work to become the best journalist possible.
“Get your hands dirty,” Oliver told one student.
When Oliver finished talking to the last student, she said she had the feeling the students heard her message.
“You could see something in the look in their eyes,” Oliver said. “It made me feel good. It made me feel like [the future] is in good hands.”
Here is the link to watch the entire discussion at Medill. Highly recommended, as there were many more valuable insights from the panel.
Recommended reading on sports journalism this week:
- Find out who were the big winners in this year’s APSE contest.
- Malcolm Moran discusses his role as director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana.
- Alison Gordon passed away. She was the first woman baseball beat writer, covering the Toronto Blue Jays.
- With Radio Shack going out of business, Patrick Reusse recalls a time when their computers were the lifeblood for sportswriters.
- Michael Bradley of the National Sports Journalism Center wonders if it is time for the media to stop asking questions of athletes in the wake of Kevin Durant’s recent rant.
Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report.