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From parody accounts to Aaron Rodgers, disinformation infiltrates sports media

Fans and experts evaluate the state of sports media on social media and television


"I almost like the purpose they serve, because it will check a lot of bigger people in media when they're citing somebody like that — they get tricked."

False information has taken over sports media with an increase of sensationalized coverage and a lack of journalistic standards. But ASU experts, as well as sports fans and influencers, offer insight to navigating what's true and what's not.

Misinformation and disinformation have grown more common both on the internet and in television media, especially within the sports world. 

Personalities such as Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, who have both become famous for their controversial sports takes,  have become the standard image of what "sports journalism" looks like, at least on TV.

"They treat the viewer(s) like they’re morons," said Max Flammer, a senior studying business law. "I don't like that about it, and I think it's been that way for the past 20 years."

In written journalism, many prominent publications have laid off a significant amount of staff, leaving a void in a side of sports-related content that once flourished. ESPN, The Athletic and Sports Illustrated are just a few examples of outlets that have laid off journalists within the last year. 

Since then, the digital era of sports journalism and analysis has grown more powerful, which isn’t always a bad thing. But, in some cases, like when FOX Sports analyst Emmanuel Acho admitted to not caring whether the information he was sharing was fake or not, the flaws become clear.

"He said the quiet part out loud. He basically admitted he's just an entertainer and not an analyst," said Anthony Lawson, the founder of Esquire Sports, a sports media company with over 85,000 followers on TikTok. "I don't think entertainers are the bane of sports media's existence (though). They serve a pretty critical role, because some people do want to just tune in, be entertained by the points Emmanuel Acho makes, and move on. But at the same time, it’s not a great thing for them to do to tear somebody down with made-up points."

Acho took shots at NFL prospect and former USC quarterback Caleb Williams, using proven false reports to criticize Williams’ character. But this isn't the only kind of consequence of the lack of journalistic standards within the online sports community.

Changes in free speech and security rules on X, formerly known as Twitter, after Elon Musk took over in 2022 brought on the rise of parody accounts, which deliberately spread fake, parody news, because of an incentive-based focus on views and engagement above all else.

Profiles include obvious parodies, but also less obvious troll accounts like "@WesleySteinberg", the account that fooled Acho in the first place.

"I almost like the purpose they serve, because it will check a lot of bigger people in media when they're citing somebody like that — they get tricked," Lawson said. "It shows that they didn't do their due diligence." 

Online sports content creators getting exposed for not fact-checking is one thing, but sports media broadcasts have now platformed political and pandemic-related disinformation.

Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the New York Jets, was allowed to spread COVID-19 vaccine disinformation on The Pat McAfee Show on ESPN, one of the most popular shows in sports media.

"That's not even 'infotainment' when Aaron Rodgers is hopping on (The Pat McAfee Show) and talking about the vaccine," Lawson said. "That's just straight-up disinformation breaching into sports media."

Viewers were left to wonder whether this was intentional, as it drew criticism online, driving further engagement.

"People don't have to have financial motivations to want to share information or misinformation," said Asheley R. Landrum, a professor of journalism and mass communication and senior global futures scientist who specializes in misinformation in media.

However, Landrum said the model for funding journalism has changed from the pre-internet era. It used to rely on subscriptions, but audiences expect information for free. Focus thus shifted to clicks and advertising, which brings in the revenue publications need to sustain themselves. 

"It's very hard to find good writers, because the flashy headlines, the bulls--- headlines, those get more clicks," Flammer said. "A lot of great writers are buried in that."

Quality content does exist in all forms of sports journalism, but it does seem harder to find on social media. Platforms like Substack offer an alternative means of reading and supporting your favorite writers and journalists, but this isn’t an easy fix to sports media’s overall issues, either.

"You have individual journalists who are … basically influencers. They have their following, they have personalities, they have the styles that they write in," Landrum said. "So, instead of having people demanding objective journalism, now you're inviting them to share your perspective like an Instagram influencer would."

Now, sports fans are left to weigh the pros and cons of different entertainment and news platforms.

"I don't think it's a terrible problem. I could see it being more of a problem in the future,” said Hogan Miller, a senior studying sports business. "Especially on sites like Twitter … people nowadays can pretty easily sniff out what’s reputable and what’s not."

Objectivity in these personalized mediums is hard to find, but many sports fans rather rely on the imperfect world of following specific journalists than brave the unknown of social media algorithms. 

"We're less aware of the fact that (information) is not in our control," Lawson said. "That's interesting but dangerous for a lot of people, be it in sports or in real-world politics."

Edited by Sophia Braccio, Shane Brennan and Caera Learmonth.

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