I like to wake up to The Today Programme on Radio 4 and my ears pricked up as Evan Davis introduced a piece about an unusual sports journalist – a computer! Programmers in the US have developed software that enables computers to write sports stories – no need to wait for the hack to return from his liquid lunch, just type in the essential details and wait for HAL to come up with the goods. The computer draws on common scenarios to produce a written article – the last-minute goal, the second half fight-back, the player’s previous record or his current stats this season. It churns out quite plausible prose, perfectly readable, and according to the programmers the computer gives the sports fans what they want – the key facts and the best pieces of the action.
But is that really what the readers want? We can get that anywhere – piped to us via i-phone or Blackberry. I think what makes good sports journalism (any journalism) so readable are the behind-the-scenes stories. We want to hear about the spats between players, the sledging on the cricket pitch, the manager throwing pizza at the players at half time. We want to read about the fan who sold all his worldly goods so he could follow his beloved team at the World Cup, only to be turned away at the gate. And how the team manager, upon hearing about this, invited him to sit in the VIP seats.
Sport is about conflict, loyalty, competition, pressure and emotion – all reflections of human strengths and frailties. Good stories need a healthy dose of the ‘human element’ to do their job effectively. It’s the way we connect with, and influence, our audience.