10 Sports Biases You Need To Know: Bias of Sensationalism


[Editor's Note: You ever take a bunch of meticulous notes and then accidentally delete them all almost immediately upon completion? Well, it happened to me. So if you were wondering why the long delay since the last entry in this series, well there you have it. I now present the rest of the 10 Deadly Biases from a second set of notes. Cheers. -DC]

In an attempt to more fully understand the nature of covering sports in an accurate and informative way, the BSN Denver Rockies staff has been pouring over all kinds of argumentative pieces over the last few weeks in order to try to highlight some of the gaps that most commonly arise.

There are all kinds of fallacies and biases that exist in these arguments and the point of this list is not to denigrate anyone or to separate ourselves from the criticism herein. The goal here is to make sure we are recognizing the flaws in logic and consistency that occur on all sides of all debates while filtering that through our experiences covering the Colorado Rockies.

Many of the 10 Deadly Biases are well known to most of us. When you use the word “homer” around a sports fan, they don’t first think of an ancient Greek poet or an indelible cartoon character. But there are numerous (apparently nine) forms of bias in sports coverage that are just as insidious and just as common

Bias of Sensationalism

Committing the fallacy of straw-manning your opposition or creating a false dichotomy during a debate renders one’s argument invalid. But a general appeal to sensationalism can be just as corrosive to a quality exchange of ideas, without necessarily breaking any logical rules.

To call ourselves out on an example, we recently published an article with the headline “These could be the final weeks of Carlos Gonzalez’ Rockies career.” There are no factual errors in that statement but we were certainly selling the most exciting of possible outcomes, not necessarily the most likely. Sensationalism is, according to our own completely unscientific research, the most common bias among members of the media. We are all after your time and attention, and getting it isn’t easy, hence the tactics.

But where sensationalism becomes much more of an issue is when it starts to affect the parameters of any given debate. Once we have your time and attention, it is imperative that any journalist stick to the facts, even if the most spicy ones. This can create an atmosphere, though, where every position along every point of contention morphs into its most extreme form. Not quite a straw man, just the worst version of the argument.

This is quite common in the stathead versus eye-test debates. Regardless of the legitimacy of an individual point, if Person A uses a certain stat (RBI or Wins) as a piece of evidence in their favor, Person B might reach the conclusion that Person A doesn’t understand any “better” stats and therefore might not take the argument on face value.

This clouds this issue in instances where Person A might only be slightly higher on the concept of RBI or Wins than Person B. Or where Person A might even have a superior understanding of advanced stats and their limits and is actively choosing not to use them in this case, rather than being completely ignorant to them.

The very moment one individual starts coming from a perspective that is either slightly alien or already somewhat rejected by another individual, its easy to make their arguments far more extreme in one’s own head especially when intentions can be muddy.

Sensationalism is not just a weapon of the media, though they wield it most often. As issues grow more divisive, the sensationalism of the other side becomes more intense. Beyond the obvious ad hominem involved, groups are widely labeled by the most extreme versions of the arguments others in that group are making.

This is incredibly common in our daily lives. Entire political campaigns are built on terms like “Pro Choice” and “Pro Life” to name the most famous examples; phrases meant to heavily imply a far more extreme position to their opposition than anyone on that side would use to describe themselves. For surely no one describes themselves as being anti-choice or anti-life in any kind of broad spectrum.

What is interesting about this bias in sports is that we tend to focus so heavily on homerism that we completely miss the sensationalism right in front of our faces. The irony is, those often most prone to call out the former are incredibly guilty of the latter; the sportswriter who demeans the fans for using the word “we” then turns around and leads a pitchfork crowd to get the GM fired. The evaluator who claims sole dominion over objective facts because they don't root for a specific team, but then gets excited and roots for their conceptual theories to play out on the field.

Whether its dismissing those in the stat community for "not playing the game" or dismissing those in the traditional community for "not understanding objective data" sensationalism plays a huge role in equal measure. Plenty of people who crunch numbers have played the game and plenty of guys who play the game can do math.

And any good statistician will tell you that simply providing numbers without context is not good. A method called "cherry picking" is a favorite among those who sensationalize with numbers.

Having read over countless team blogs in four major sports while researching this article, BSN Denver found articles from 11 different writers for 11 different teams claiming that they have the worst ownership in all of pro sports. And that was just skimming the surface. An answer to not appear like homers is to be sensationalist in the opposite direction. Surely, like Highlanders, there can be only one worst team in professional sports. And it’s the Cleveland Browns. (Joke.)

These conclusions are often reached after especially bad seasons, which happen for somebody every year, that’s how winning and losing works. But most especially, the arise when ownership says – not necessarily does – something stupid. This becomes the galvanizing moment that justifies imprinting the worst version of every argument they’ve ever made onto their intentions.

This is tricky, because there are absolutely those out there with bad intentions that need to be ousted by the media, even in sports. But the truth is usually more boring. Ownership aren’t the bad guys from your favorite sports movie. With such a small margin for error in professional sports, the tiniest little things from random injuries to dumb luck can take a team from an afterthought to a world champion. This kind of rhetoric also serves as a kind of “Boy Who Cried Wolf” when something legitimately does occur. Like when the Atlanta Braves forced their way into a new stadium, screwing two sets of taxpayers.

What is crazy about this bias is that when polled, most people agree real answers to tough questions often lie “somewhere in the middle.” There is a lot of gray area in life, and few deny this. But when engaged in debate, we quickly forget it.


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