The Sean Payton rumors say more about the state of journalism than they do about the coach

I can’t believe I’m about to write a story about a story, but with the NFL’s “Sunday Splash Report” season in full swing for the playoffs, the elephant in the room must be addressed.

For about a week, rumors have been swirling that Saints head coach Sean Payton is mulling a year-long sabbatical and that his return to New Orleans after that is in doubt.

NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport fanned the flames Sunday morning by publishing this story, in which he regurgitates the rumors and quotes “sources” who say the whispers are real and that Payton has “gone dark” on several people close to him.

That story, as well as every other “splash report” belched out by lazy reporters on pregame shows, are what’s known as yellow journalism, a style of poorly-researched reporting that relies on sensationalism or exaggeration to increase sales.  Or, in this case, to increase clicks, tweets and views.

By penning this column, I’m falling for it.  You probably fell for it, too.

It’s infuriating to see baseless headlines like that because someone is tempting us to waste time thinking about the idea of Payton abandoning a team that was on the precipice of the playoffs despite a litany of obstacles in 2021.  The implications of a potential Payton departure would be catastrophic for the Saints, and Rapoport is intentionally creating a panic to engage people on social media.

But it just isn’t real news (yet).

Ian Rapoport probably sleeps in jammies with Roger Goodell’s face on them.

The truth of the matter is, as of this writing, no one outside of Payton himself has any idea what he’s going to do.  This is true not only of his coaching future, but also existentially in regards to every other moment of Payton’s life.  Writing an article based on a “source” saying that another individual “may or may not” do something is a premise as sturdy as a blacked-out tourist stumbling down Bourbon Street.

Also, there’s the indisputable fact that Payton is under contract for several more years, making a potential exit messy and complicated. 

With that in mind, let’s a take a look at some of the deceptive language used in Rapoport’s article so that in the future, you’ll be able to smell the dog turd before stepping in it.

Multiple attempts by to reach Payton went unreturned.

This is a phrase most often used in urgent hard news reporting.  Journalists are always on a deadline, and when a public figure is on the wrong end of a story, it’s the reporter’s ethical duty to ensure the audience hears from both sides.  If you have the quote from an accuser (or some such source), then you need to hear from the other person.

When attempts (any good reporter would make multiple overtures, so at least claims they did that) to reach the other party fail, you can use that phrase to indicate that you tried to tell a fair and balanced story, but one or more pieces of the puzzle weren’t cooperative.

But here’s the rub with Payton: this is not an urgent situation.  It’s a rumor created by an unknown “source” being reported as something that sounds more dire than it is in reality.

If you were on vacation in Mexico after a tough season at the helm of a professional football franchise and some stooge working for the league’s own media division called you, would you answer?  Probably not.  It’s possible that Payton wouldn’t have even known why someone with NFL Media was reaching out to him, or that the attempts to reach him never actually reached him because they were stonewalled by an assistant.

I am NOT reporting this as fact, but merely as possibilities based on my own experience.

This may or may not be Sean Payton after the Bills game, giving what may or may be a press conference. The reality is, no one knows for sure.

There are also mentions of “sources” and “Several people close to Payton.”

And on that note, this quote from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben will never die – “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Reporters are given tremendous legal leeway to protect individuals on the inside of a sensitive story, as to not compromise that person’s livelihood or safety.  As such, unless the source wants to be named, their identity is kept confidential.

This means that if a reporter really wanted to, they could write a bunch of bullshit and hide behind the “sources say” language.  Thus, you know, the whole media ethics thing.

This is a two-way street because sources can also manipulate reporters to further their own interests, meaning that reporters should trust these sources absolutely and only report what they say if it’s truly newsworthy.  This happens all the time in pro sports, with agents leaking tidbits to the press to gain leverage in contract negotiations.

I’ve been part of newsroom discussions of whether or not to run with a story because it relies on a source that isn’t credible, or that an editor or producer doesn’t 100% believe to be credible.  There is, after all, a massive difference between the firsthand knowledge of someone who actually works for the Saints; someone who is personally acquainted with players and coaches but has no professional connection; and someone who just works as a janitor at the training facility on Airline Drive.

These individuals have different levels of knowledge and what they tell reporters in confidence holds a different amount of weight.

In the Payton situation, an anonymous source is dangling a potential franchise-altering bombshell.  They’re shrugging and saying, “I dunno, maybe the best coach in the league will quit.  But then again, maybe he won’t!” 

Hey Mr. Rapoport, if you’re going to tease us like that, don’t you think your audience deserves a little more information?  Don’t you think they deserve to know where, exactly, these rumors are coming from?  Because if they’re coming from someone with whom Payton doesn’t trust completely, or is just flat out not a credible source, then the information is meaningless.

C’mon. There’s no way Payton is walking away from this vibe.

There’s also this:

The New Orleans Saints’ season has been over for two weeks and as the days have gone by, one question has remained open: Is head coach Sean Payton coming back?

Sources say that Payton, who has three years left on his contract, has not committed to returning to coach for another season in New Orleans. He has not yet informed the organization for whom he’s coached since 2006 that he will definitely return.”

Was anyone even asking this question?  Is this something that Payton has to inform Mickey Loomis and Gayle Benson of every season?

When I clock out of work, I don’t think I’ve ever once said, “Hey boss, by the way, I’m DEFINITELY coming back next week.”  It’s a ludicrous question to begin with.

And here’s the tag:

But the reality is simple: No one knows what he will do.”

No shit.  Does Payton even know what he’s going to have for breakfast tomorrow?  Might be worth tweeting about.

This is the entire premise of the report, but it means nothing.  It’s empty calories.  Not newsworthy.  A steaming hot load of malarkey.

Now, this is what the story is really about:

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter.

To sum it all up, Rapoport is reporting a rumor and propping it up with specific words and phrases to make pure speculation sound like real news, all in attempt to have you click on some links. 

All that stuff I just wrote about media ethics is something he knows, by the way, but he ran with the story anyway.  It’s irresponsible and frustrating, both as a fan and as a member of the media.  Don’t let it ruin your day.

At least yellow stories like Rapoport’s Rapo-porting have one benefit – it brought you here, where you learned something and got a little bit smarter about how you consume your sports news.

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