The most deserving football defenders are always the most uncomfortable – at least for their opponents. Giorgio Chiellini, for example, the 1.87-meter gladiator image in Italy’s defense, defended his team this summer with measured destructiveness for the European Championship: When his English opponent stormed the Italian goal in the 96th minute of the European Championship final, Chiellini grabbed him on the collar and tore it down mercilessly – a foul, an assassination attempt on the game that was to prove to be a key scene. Because the defender saved his team in extra time and in the penalty shoot-out, which Italy won in the end. And because Chiellini, apart from a few excursions into the rough, is generally considered a fine guy, he seemed to want to thank the referee for the yellow card and shook hands with the opponent to reconcile. Sliding in if necessary, and still maintaining fairness – a balancing act.
Journalists have to strike a similarly difficult balance if they don’t just want interviewees to get away with their version of the story. Greetings to Frank Plasberg, they should be tough but fair. In politics, journalists sometimes pull the collars of top representatives long after the final whistle. In sports reporting, however, some media would, figuratively speaking, wish for a little more Chiellini.
Last week the pay broadcaster Sky announced a close cooperation with Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund. Under the heading “Volle Pulle Schwarzgelb”, Sky informed that the cooperation will be “intensified editorially” over the next four years, permanent BVB programs will be established in the program and “more BVB players and officials” will be involved in order to win Borussia fans as subscribers. “There is no other broadcaster in Germany with more BVB than Sky,” cheered a manager. Unfortunately, the communication did not mention independence, distance or critical journalism.
Will the broadcaster report on its business partner as critically as it does on its Bundesliga competitors?
Now, of course, Sky is not a figurehead for investigative sports journalism, research on doping or tax evasion in professional sports takes place elsewhere. The broadcaster spends a lot of money on the broadcasting rights for football matches and is primarily interested in bringing its entertainment product, which is equipped with preliminary, interim and follow-up reports, to the football crowd at a profit. The BVB’s large fan base is certainly not a bad target group. However, the question arises as to whether Sky will be able to report on the business partner from Dortmund using the same journalistic criteria as it does on its 17 Bundesliga competitors – who are not so closely interwoven with the broadcaster. Are BVB managers now preferentially invited to broadcasts? Will the association have messages circulated primarily via Sky in the future? Is the balance suffering?
“Should Sky miss the critical proximity to BVB, that would be an own goal,” says Christoph Bertling, deputy head of the Institute for Communication and Media Research at the German Sport University in Cologne. After all, the paying audience expects football coverage to be impartial. The announced fan formats, such as a ten-part documentary and the broadcast of a weekly BVB magazine, are in themselves harmless, says Bertling. Almost every club has something like that. However, Sky must strictly separate this content from other program areas. “If there were suddenly a distortion of the reporting in favor of BVB in other programs, that would be problematic. Sky must be aware of this danger.”
The club productions are “clearly marked as such,” explains Sky
A spokesman for the station rejects the concerns on SZ request. It is the company’s journalistic claim to report “independently and unfiltered” on the Bundesliga. The new club TV offer is an addition and not a substitute for traditional media reporting. The club productions agreed with Dortmund would be “clearly marked as such” in order to distinguish them from the editorial reporting. In Dortmund, too, the concern about being too close is considered unfounded. “Borussia Dortmund values critical, independent journalism,” said a club spokesman. BVB does not plan to encroach on the station’s editorial sovereignty, and they have been cooperating with the media for years and are “convinced that journalistic distance will be maintained this time too”. When asked, both sides do not say how much money the partnership is about.
The deal also throws a general spotlight on the communication strategies of major Bundesliga clubs. It is not a new phenomenon that clubs try to evade the critical control of traditional media and send interviews or important messages to the public primarily through their own channels. FC Bayern, for example, has been running its own 24-hour channel since 2017 and simply makes the news about itself there. “The feeling for the role of critical journalism is being lost more and more in the big clubs,” says communications researcher Bertling. The clubs must understand, however, that journalists need access to players, coaches and managers in order to carry out their social tasks. “You must not isolate yourself, otherwise society will also lose access to critical classification.” Debates about doping, racism or sexism in football would not take place on club channels.
So far, the top clubs have increasingly separated themselves from traditional media, says Bertling. The alliance between Sky and BVB is now a new step, a kind of delimitation between the two worlds. We will see exactly what that means. Coming soon, at Sky.