Reporters mustn’t get too close to subjects

You gotta love sports fans. They get passionately involved in their teams, and they certainly don’t let a writer get away with mistakes.

I wrote a column last week on The Miami Herald’s sports coverage of Florida International University, particularly compared to the University of Miami, and I have egg all over my face. In tightening on deadline, I wrote that the FIU baseball team last year “fell short of making the NCAA playoffs.” That was wrong, as many Golden Panther fans told me.

“They did make the playoffs,” wrote Vicki Levin. “In fact, they played on the UM field!! Once again, you didn’t notice them.”

Ouch. The UM connection made it worse. I meant to write that they didn’t advance far in the playoffs, though just making it, after winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament, was a major achievement. I apologize.

But that doesn’t change my basic points. They are: UM does and should get the greater share of sports coverage, though FIU deserves more than it has been getting. Herald editors agree and are responding with staffing changes. The angry resignation announced in a Herald blog by staffer Pete Pelegrin, who had been covering FIU, was unprofessional and out of proportion to his complaints of an anti-FIU bias.

FIU’s senior vice president for communications, Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, said university officials had no comment on the Pelegrin case but were “disappointed but definitely not surprised” by the imbalance in coverage with UM that I found over the last two years.

The university was glad to hear that the Herald has added a full beat reporter and a blogger for FIU sports, but more than quantity, she said, the university hoped this would lead to more “respectful” coverage. Since its founding in 1972, FIU has graduated more than 160,000 people, more than 80 percent of whom live in South Florida, she said.

Several readers, however, felt I was too dismissive of Pelegrin’s bias examples, which I called “more sour grapes than significant.” Pelegrin was not considered eligible for the job when an existing reporter was dedicated to cover FIU sports.

As Kenneth Newman wrote: “I thought that Pete Pelegrin had a legitimate argument. Maybe The Herald didn’t like his method of operation, but I do think that his cause was just.”

So, let’s return to the specific bias complaints and explain why I don’t find them worth pursuing.

• The first concerned a feature he wrote in 2008 on FIU’s then-freshmen basketball center, Freddy Asprilla. The Colombian had been playing basketball for only two years but was doing so well that he later went on to be Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.

It was a solid story idea, and according to Pelegrin, his editors sent a photographer to take pictures and scheduled the story to run on the front page of the Sports section.

The night before, as the Sports pages were being laid out, the article was moved inside the section, without a picture. Two UM articles, however, ran on the Sports front page. One was about an athlete caught breaking into an on-campus apartment, the other was about a reserve basketball player on a hot streak.

“So when you looked at the front page of the paper that day, there was a positive UM story next to a negative UM story,” posted Pelegrin. “Guess a positive FIU story next to a negative UM story would not look good? The paper’s sports front that day looked like the `Miami Hurricane Herald’ or whatever the Coral Gables school is named.”

But as Pelegrin himself notes, the request for an FIU feature came from a Herald sports editor; a photographer was assigned. The will by editors was there. Stories get moved at the last minute all the time. It’s happened to me hundreds of times. The FIU subject was good, but not better than the UM stories.

I haven’t seen how well Pelegrin’s article was written to know if it was worthy of the first page, but the planned photos — posted by Pelegrin — of Asprilla hanging from a rim were hokey. Still, the editors made an everyday judgment call, and there was nothing egregious in the one they made.

• In the second complaint, a short article by an intern on the retirement of FIU media relations director Rich Kelch ran only on the website. Pelegrin said he was told by an editor that the print section wanted to focus on field action more than media relations directors. Yet, a year earlier, the retiring UM football secretary merited a feature and photo on the Sports front page.

This prompted an insulting remark by Pelegrin about secretaries. “Rich, you should have made coffee and filed papers,” he wrote.

You might think that Pelegrin still has a comparative point, but — honestly — how important is it? Moreover, while media directors are significant to reporters, how many sports readers care, no matter how admirable Kelch apparently was. And the website is not Siberia; its importance rivals that of the print product.

• The final complaint was about articles by Adam Beasley, the reporter assigned to the FIU beat job. Pelegrin, for example, repeated at length an old posting by a reader who picked apart a Beasley story questioning whether the athletic fees that FIU students are assessed are too high. The reader introduced other measures, such as the fee charged per credit hour.

Fair enough — but not examples of an anti-FIU bias by The Herald.

Pelegrin in his complaints reflected a malady not uncommon to reporters: He identified too much with his subject. He has blown minor examples way out of proportion.

Finally, some readers have noted that I am associated with a university in Boston. True enough. But my only connection with a Florida university is through my wife. She is a loyal alum . . . of FIU.

This column was originally published in the Miami Herald on Aug. 8, 2010.

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