October 7, 2007

The Heat beat

An interview with…


sports reporter

The Miami Herald

A year ago this month,
The Miami Herald hired Michael Wallace to cover the Miami Heat. Wallace calls it his “dream job,” even though he didn’t get to cover the team’s dream season – this was the year after the Heat won the NBA title. The 19-year-old team suffered its first-ever playoff sweep in the very first round, with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade injured much of the time.

So it goes for sports reporters.

Wallace also has a noble hobby: Ever since he was a reporter in Shreveport, Louisiana, he’s spoken to college students, especially black students, about becoming responsible journalists. It’s a profession, he says, “that sorely needs diversity, fresh viewpoints, and new ideas.”

Some news reporters say sports reporters have it easy…

Before I switched to sports, I covered education, crime, and politics the first few years of my career. The truth is, with today's 24-hour news cycle, there are really no more barriers between beats. A sports reporter has to know his way around the law and a courtroom these days when athletes get in legal trouble. A government or politics reporter must know how to interact in the sports realm when a county commission is considering whether to build that $500 million sports facility. Journalism today not only requires, but demands, versatility.

What's one thing that "average people" don't know about sports reporting?

I've been covering sports for 10 years, and I still don't think many in my family understand exactly how my job is done. One thing most people struggle to comprehend is the relentless travel schedule and the day-after-day grind that comes with covering a professional sports team for a major newspaper. But the fun and games outweigh the demands and headaches.

What about journalism students? Their misconceptions about sports reporting?

Many of them don't quite comprehend just how vital the ability to write is. Many students I meet are interested in broadcast, which is perceived to be more glamorous. But even that field involves far more work than getting in front of a camera and telling a story or conducting an interview. It takes the ability to research, report, and write.

In terms of sports reporting, I think a lot of students don't quite understand the relationship between reporters and athletes/coaches often aren't as friendly or cordial as they might seem. And really, they aren't supposed to be.

Why are so many sports figures black, but so many sports writers are white?

First, I disagree with the notion that so many sports figures are black. Have you checked NASCAR? How about hockey? Golf? Tennis? Baseball? African-American athletes are well represented in football and basketball, but that's about it.
There’s a disturbing lack of diversity in many sports fields as well as in the media.

The makeup of the press box is often the complete opposite of the playing field – and then some. Speaking from experience, it can be an uncomfortable lack of balance. I covered an SEC Football Media Day a few years ago. Of the 300 or so beat writers who were in the main ballroom to hear the coaches, fewer than five were African-American.

I think we all have a responsibility to improve diversity in the media. Colleges need to do a better job of building relationships with high school journalism programs. Newspaper editors need to do a better job of recruiting qualified journalists. And we as reporters have to do a better job of becoming mentors to students who are interested in the field.

Are newspapers getting diverse enough quickly enough?

I think we’re seeing improvements with reporters, but we need tremendous strides in diversity among newsroom decision-makers and management. They’re the ones who truly impact story placement, what gets covered, and what doesn’t. The more viewpoints in the newsroom budget meetings, the better chances an overlooked issue or community will be covered fairly regularly and regularly fairly.

Who's the easiest Heat player or coach to interview? Who's the hardest?

Shaq and Dwyane Wade provide good interviews because they realize they’re the spokesmen for the team. Antoine Walker is probably the most ridiculed from a fan standpoint, but he’s the most articulate and has the best basketball mind, in my opinion.

The toughest might be Alonzo Mourning and Jason Williams, for different reasons. Zo is so intense and he speaks from the heart. But the same passion that makes him great at what he does also makes him difficult at times. He can be antagonistic and emotional with the media after a loss – you sometimes have to wear your armor before you approach Zo. Jason Williams just doesn’t say much. Most times, he’d rather run laps on a twisted ankle than speak with reporters.

One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into the skulls of new grads and young pros?

Buy a road Atlas, and don’t be afraid to go anywhere in the country to get started in the field. Jobs are scarce. Don’t feel that just because you have a degree and worked for your school newspaper – or have worked a couple of internships – that you’re entitled to a job. You may need to take that cops beat job in Paducah for two years before that bigger job comes along.