Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Under Further Review: An Agenda Setting Review of the Michael Sam Coverage

On Sunday Feb. 9, the sports world was hit with one of the biggest news stories of the year: University of Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam said he is gay. Only two players in the five major sports had publicly come out prior to Sam – the NBA’s Jason Collins and the MLS’s Robbie Rogers. Sam, who recorded double-digit sacks as a senior and was honored as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, is projected to be selected as high as the third round in this year’s NFL Draft, which would make him the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. The story was initially broken by ESPN and the NewYork Times, while Sports Illustrated followed closely behind, but further analysis reveals that each covered the news in unique ways.

When Sam came out as gay, the headlines subtly told a big story. Although ESPN and the New York Times both broke the story, they went with different headlines. ESPN ran with the headline reading, “Mizzou’s Michael Sam says he’s gay.” The headline packs a big punch in a few words, sure to cut through the internet and Olympic clutter. It also divulges no other information about the story, allowing people to simple read the headline and react without context. It is important to remember that the “E” in “ESPN” stands for entertainment, so allowing people to speculate, argue, and draw their own conclusions are things that drive traffic to their digital media properties and television shows. The New York Times, predictably, went with a less emotion-driven headline than ESPN that read, “NFL Prospect Michael Sam Proudly Says What Teammates Knew: He’s Gay.” The Times’ headline gives informed context that I also believe leans towards a much more accepting side. When you read the headline, the part jumps out is that his teammates accepted him. It says that I should accept him too. The headline is much less dependent on the emotional reaction than ESPN’s, and it is meant to draw you in to fully read the story and formulate an informed opinion on the matter. Sports Illustrated ran a headline on the subject that said, “Michael Sam, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, says he is gay.” The headline is just as neutral as ESPN’s headline, but offers far more context. Sam is not just a football player, he is the best football player on defense in the best college football conference. Sports Illustrated’s headline is far more neutral than the New York Times’ because the context given is only based on his football ability, not reaction.

All three of the news stories published about Michael Sam attract the reader because it is something that they have never seen before. There has never been a draft prospect come out as openly gay prior to the draft in any of the major sports. This is completely new, and being that it was related to the NFL, the audience was bigger than in any other sport. The Super Bowl had been played only a week earlier at the time of the announcement, and people were searching for some kind of football related news to fill the void. It is an inherently attractive story whenever the NFL is involved. The story, though, may push some readers away because it pertains to a social issue that some prefer not to talk about. Just like what was seen when Collins and Rogers made their announcements, there are people who simply do not care about a player’s sexual orientation. They only care if he can play; they don’t want to talk about anything else. Also, people tend to be hesitant or cautious when it comes to talking about important societal issues, which is another reason why they may sweep this story under the rug. 

Surprisingly, I think that the New York Times was most obvious in how it wants people to feel about the story. The headline tells the story they want to tell. His teammates accepted him and you should as well. It’s quite clear. The fact that his coaches and teammates knew already and the story of how he told them last August was the lead to their entire story. The Times was quite clear with what they thought the response ought to be. ESPN continued with a much more neutral approach, leaving the readers open to form their own opinions, no matter how emotion-filled they may be. Sports Illustrated led with again qualifying that Sam is a very good football player who happens to be gay, staying true to their headline. Honestly, it’s a bit surprising that ESPN comes off as the most conservative of the three stories because they do have a reputation for being among the more progressive sports media outlets.

In long, in-depth news stories like these, I think the most important part of the framing comes in the first few paragraphs because the story will lose readers the longer it continues. It is interesting to look at Sam’s first quote in each of the stories when it comes to the framing of the stories. Sam’s first direct quote in ESPN’s story says, "I am an openly, proud gay man.” Again, the quote remains true to the headline of the story in simply pointing out Sam’s sexual orientation without qualifying it with context of who he really is. The New York Times, leading with the story of how his teammates came to know, used a quote where Sam said, “I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out.” The quote continues to hit home to reader that his Missouri teammates did not have any problem with it, and you should not either. Finally, Sports Illustrated’s first quote from Sam was one that came later in the New York Times’ story where Sam said, "I'm Michael Sam. I'm a football player and I'm gay.” Again, sticking to the message in the headline, Sports Illustrated sticks to the story that he is a football player who happens to be gay, not simply a gay man. In the initial stories from ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated on Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay draft prospect, the headlines told the whole story. 


Kevin Rossi is a junior Drexel Sport Management major with minors in Communications and Business Administration. Since joining the SMTSU, Kevin has worked his way up the ladder to President. Currently, Kevin is also the Drexel editor for Kevin recently finished his second co-op with Temple University in their Athletic Communications office. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_rossi.

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