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Columnist: ‘Told me’ an easily abused reporting device

Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram takes aim at a widely abused trope that has emerged in sports reporting in recent years, the tendency of sideline reporters and print writers to report a story and pass it off like exclusive information, typically by saying a coach or player “told me.” How easily can this be abused? Well, just consider this sentence: “President Obama told me Osama Bin Laden is dead.”

That’s me, sitting on my couch, reporting to you information I heard from the lips of the President of the United States. Is it factually incorrect to say he “told me” this? No. Does it convey the impression that I alone was bequeathed this information? Yes.

In his column, Engel provided a recent example:

“(A)bout 10 days ago Mavs coach Rick Carlisle was surrounded by about 20 sports hacks, including a TNT sideline reporter, and answered a question with a rather benign response. A few days later during a Mavs’ playoff game against Portland, this TNT sideline reporter recounted the group interview with a “Rick Carlisle told me …”

Technically, this TNT reporter isn’t lying. Carlisle did tell him that. And me. And about 18 others, too.”

Does the reader/listener/viewer really care? Probably not.

This is an ESPN initiative that has morphed its way into nearly every piece of reporting on that network, and nearly every other station and sports news outlet in the nation. The design was to create the illusion that you can’t get this news anywhere else, which is often true. If the reporter is talking one-on-one with a player/coach/owner/GM “Told Me” is significant. Or can be. If a reporter has a great relationship with a source, “Told Me” can be a very big deal.

But all too often “Told Me” is a question and answer exchange in front of other reporters.

Even though journalism is allegedly about the news and not the reporter, “Told Me” also serves as evidence to an editor or someone high in the food chain that the interviewer actually went out to collect their own information rather than just sit on their computer and steal someone else’s work.

The overall effect of “Told Me” dilutes the genuine, original exclusive reporting. There is so much “Told Me” now that it’s become nearly impossible to distinguish the exclusive material from the information that was gathered in large groups.

Keep that in mind the next time you hear a reporter say “told me.”

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