David Shoalts' Sidney Crosby Story Was Sports Journalism At Its Worst

David Shoalts' bungled reporting did Sidney Crosby no favors.

A sports columnist relies on analysis and speculation. Your lot in life is educated guesses. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss, but the gist of it is trying to maintain credibility while pushing the envelope.

You're not just paid to deliver the news, but to deliver it in a creative way that others may have overlooked. Be aggressive. Be controversial. Take on readers, make them react, positively or negatively, to what you're saying. Make people care.

But do not, under any circumstances, fabricate. Period.

David Shoalts apparently didn't get the memo.

On January 18th, the Globe and Mail in Toronto ran a piece penned by Mr. Shoalts alleging that sources close to the Pittsburgh Penguins told him that Sidney Crosby would skip the NHL All-Star Game due to anger over the NHL's weak stance against shots to the head. Crosby would not sit because of the concussion he suffered at the start of the new year, but because he's angry that he suffered a concussion.

The word filtering out of the Pittsburgh Penguins is that Crosby is an angry young man, angry enough to pull his considerable star presence from one of the league’s showcase events because he does not think the NHL is doing enough to protect its players.

Hmm ... that's a pretty intriguing start to the story. After all, Crosby is one of the NHL's marquee stars, and the idea that he would skip the All-Star Game out of anger is a big deal. Shoalts continues:

An NHL source said Crosby is not likely to tell the NHL he is withdrawing from the all-star game to protest the fact neither player who hit him on the head was suspended. However, he could easily decline and cite the need for complete recovery from a mild concussion.

The source said Crosby, who showed up at the all-star game in Montreal two years ago even though he sustained a knee injury and could not play, is not inclined to do any more such favours right now.

So league sources, apparently with intimate knowledge of the Penguins (it was "word filtering out of Pittsburgh," after all) gave him the scoop that Crosby was angry and the league was going to pay for it.

But, they weren't going to know that was why, because Crosby, in an incredible act of passive-aggressiveness, wasn't going to tell them.

It turned out the story wasn't true. Crosby quickly squashed the rumors:

"That's not even close," Crosby, sitting at his locker stall following the team's morning skate, said. "I'll be there if I can be there. I still haven't ruled out being there. Hopefully, the next few days things get better and there's still a slight chance I could be back for that. That's what I'm hoping. If I can be there, I'll be there."

This is the portion of the story where I had hoped to write, "To his credit, Shoalts apologized for the story." But he hasn't. From Shoalts' Twitter account, a couple of days later:

Clarification on the fuss around Crosby: It was my opinion that he was angry enough to consider skipping the all-star game.

...And then:

A guy takes a day off and finds confusion over what he wrote about S. Crosby and the ASG. Understand this: I am not taking back anything.

Three things stand out from these messages:

1. Shoalts' complete lack of remorse at getting a purportedly big news story very, very wrong.

2. Shoalts' apparent suggestion that he didn't really say what he said, but that everyone who read it and responded in an uproar got it wrong. Everyone else was confused, not him.

3. Shoalts' lack of an apology for the confusion. It wasn't because of his wording, or at least he refused to acknowledge that it was. Also, he wouldn't take back anything he wrote.

Let's quote Mr. Shoalts' article once again:

An NHL source said Crosby is not likely to tell the NHL he is withdrawing from the all-star game to protest the fact neither player who hit him on the head was suspended. However, he could easily decline and cite the need for complete recovery from a mild concussion.

The source said Crosby, who showed up at the all-star game in Montreal two years ago even though he sustained a knee injury and could not play, is not inclined to do any more such favours right now.

If Shoalts is right about one thing, it's that the story was not the least bit unclear. He writes unambiguously that someone told him that Sidney Crosby would miss the NHL All-Star game not because of injury, but because of anger.

This is all important now, because Crosby has confirmed that he will miss the NHL All-Star Game due to lingering effects from a concussion that has sidelined him for most of the month of January.

Public derision of Shoalts' piece was quick and widespread following its publication, and several blogs took exception to a fairly obvious piece of speculation posing as hard news. But here's the thing: what if that hadn't happened? What if we had taken Shoalts' word for it that his source told him Crosby would miss the game without Crosby saying that the reason was because he was angry?

We'd have a story then. Sidney Crosby would have been missing the NHL All-Star Game not because he was hurt, but because he was pretending he was hurt. He's angry and this is all revenge. Crosby's reputation would be tarnished because of one person's irresponsible bit of fiction.

The saddest part is that the story would've become self-confirming. Yes, he's saying that he's skipping because he's hurt, but we know the truth thanks to David Shoalts' top-notch reporting!

Now there are simple ways Shoalts, who previously worked as a copy editor, could have gone back and fixed this. They're tricky, but I'll do my best to implement a couple:

For example, instead of:

However, he could easily decline and cite the need for complete recovery from a mild concussion.

Go with:

However, I believe he could easily decline and cite the need for complete recovery from a mild concussion.

Instead of:

The source said Crosby, who showed up at the all-star game in Montreal two years ago even though he sustained a knee injury and could not play, is not inclined to do any more such favours right now.

Go with:

Though Crosby showed up at the all-star game in Montreal two years ago even though he sustained a knee injury and could not play, I believe he is not inclined to do any more such favours right now.

Instead, David Shoalts takes the defensive. Humble, he is not, and his already fragile reputation takes another hit. But Shoalts has a granite jaw, and not even a piece like this, reeking of yellow journalism, dents his career or requires a retraction.

Social media, on the other hand, frequently at odds with print media, comes to the rescue. The outcry on Twitter and blogs led to a response. Not an apology, but at least a clarification that, indeed, everyone was right in their assumption that Shoalts' story was no story. 

Then, more responsible print journalists follow up and get the story right - proving that social and print media can coexist in harmony, at least temporarily.

 

David Shoalts, meanwhile, is left to wonder how everyone else got it so wrong.

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