Dodging the pitfalls of
covering school sports
at small newspapers

By Emily McCarthy
Bulletin Staff

Michael Donoghue knows firsthand how difficult covering local high school sports can be. From dealing with angry parents and unprepared coaches to handling the coverage of suspended student-athletes, Donoghue has dealt with them all.

Donoghue, recently retired reporter from The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press and a journalism teacher at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., hosted a discussion Saturday, Feb. 20, to share his advice for tackling the issues small newspapers face when covering local high school sports.

“One thing about sports that I like is, seasons change, players change, teams change,” Donoghue said. “It’s not like covering city hall.”

Donoghue asked those attending the session at the New England Newspaper and Press Association winter convention at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel to introduce themselves and voice concerns they face at their newspapers when trying to cover high school sports in their areas.

The common problems were dealing with coaches who failed to call in scores or coaches who could not provide newspapers with accurate statistics; covering schools that play in different leagues; the inability to obtain rosters or receiving rosters with incorrect information; and unannounced schedule changes.

Donoghue advised the group of about 10 people who attended the discussion to contact coaches and athletic directors before the school year or before each season to ask for rosters and schedules. He also suggested collaborating with other, nearby publications.

“It’s good if you can work with other newspapers, especially if it’s your deadline night and you need something,” Donoghue said.

Donoghue discussed when it is appropriate to include or omit high school athletes’ names in stories in two different situations: when an athlete makes a significant in-game mistake and when an athlete faces a suspension for violating a school rule or breaking the law.

When a high school athlete makes a mistake on the court or the field, the writer covering the game needs to decide whether it is worth naming the athlete at fault, Donoghue said. For example, if a pass falls incomplete during a crucial moment in a high school football game, it would be almost impossible to avoid writing about the play but the blame could fall on either the receiver or the quarterback, depending on how the writer handles the situation.

“(You’ve) got to make a decision as to who to point the finger at,” Donoghue said.

On the other hand, if a high school athlete is suspended for something that happened off the field, including the athlete’s name in a story depends on how forthcoming the high school is about the situation, Donoghue said.

He told the group about three high school baseball players who were suspended after they were caught drinking in a limousine during prom. Donoghue wrote about the incident and named the three players, who agreed to speak with him for the story.

“It was interesting to hear kids say ‘I really screwed up,’” Donoghue said.

Another piece of advice Donoghue gave was to try to write out-of-the-ordinary features or profiles to enhance high school sports coverage, especially during the summer months when there are no games to cover.

“Anybody can do a game story,” Donoghue said. “I always tried to look beyond the gamer.”

POSTED 3/17/16


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