At the risk of sounding like an old lady, here goes: journalists aren't supposed to become the story.
But on Monday, reporters who cover the Tampa Bay Buccaneers found themselves as one of the stories of the day on NFL Twitter (along with the gobsmacking lack of situational awareness from the New England Patriots' offense) after posting a video of their postgame interaction with backup running back Giovani Bernard.
For a recap: the Buccaneers were up 17-3 at halftime on Sunday against Cincinnati and got the ball to start the second half. Bernard fumbled a fake punt on fourth-and-1 with the ball on the Bucs' half of the field, and the Bengals got possession at Tampa Bay's 16-yard line. Despite the favorable field position for Cincinnati, the defense held the Bengals to just a field goal. It was an unfortunate mistake, and the Bengals went on to win the game 34-23, though Tom Brady's four turnovers that followed — on consecutive possessions — arguably played a much larger role in the loss.
In the locker room after the game, reporters said Bernard initially declined to comment on the play, then acquiesced after being badgered.
Bucs running back Giovani Bernard didn’t want to talk to the media about what happened on the botched fake punt. Here’s that interaction.
Note: As reporters, it is our job to seek clarity on what happened, especially on the most pivotal play of a game. pic.twitter.com/snQSvLE5mA
— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) December 19, 2022
To be clear, it isn't the interaction with Bernard that's the problem. Any reporter who does the job for any reasonable length of time will have interactions that are confrontational or awkward, especially when the team just lost a game or the topic is a bad play by a player or bad call by a coach. While there is a 10-minute "cooling off" period before coaches are at podiums or locker rooms are opened, the truth is for some athletes and in some situations, that's not nearly long enough.
And it's not about Bernard not wanting to talk either. By many accounts, the veteran is one of the nicer guys media will encounter in an NFL locker room, but he isn't the first nor last player who had no interest in talking to reporters after a tough loss or mistake.
It's the fact that we saw the interaction at all.
Posting that video reeks of trying to publicly and unnecessarily shame Bernard, and there are moments that are uncomfortable. There was a meme that circulated online years ago, of an empty white laundry basket and the words, "your dirty laundry belongs in here. Not on Facebook." In the same way, not every interaction reporters have with athletes needs to become social media fodder.
Bernard initially told reporters that he wasn't going to talk Sunday because they hadn't wanted to talk to him at any other point in the season. He missed nine weeks to an ankle injury suffered in Week 2, and the Bucs, like most teams, don't make players available to media when they're on injured reserve. Sunday was his third game back, and his fumble did play a role in the loss.
But as we see in the video, as he's walking through the locker room one reporter tells Bernard, "you were injured all year" as justification for why he hasn't gotten media attention before then. Someone else says, "what have you done for us to talk to you about all year?"
Yes, players are technically obligated to make themselves available to media once during the week and after the game. But any analysis of Sunday's game could be done without Bernard's input, and telling the audience that he wouldn't comment after the game may lead to some fans judging him negatively for not holding himself to account for his error. And that consequence is for Bernard to deal with, not reporters.
To Bernard's credit, he eventually obliged. He said it was a miscommunication, it was all on him and "I messed up." After the third time he gave that response, it was clear he wasn't going to offer more, but still he got four more questions. Four more variations on the same answer followed.
If there was an intent to make Bernard look bad with how things went down, for many it had the opposite effect: it's the media members who look bad, not to mention unprofessional.
Asking him what has he done to merit media members talking to him is foul. Bernard is a 31-year-old running back who is playing on a one-year contract for the minimum a player with his experience can earn. He didn't want to suffer an injury that took him off the field for half the season. He is likely well aware that this could be his last season as a professional athlete and may be embarrassed that a guy who once had three straight seasons with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage is now relegated to playing only special teams.
Beyond that, he's a human being. That fact seems completely lost in the interaction. It comes across that the reporters wanted something from Bernard, and damn if they aren't going to get it.
Journalism requires first and foremost great curiosity, but almost as important, an ability to foster and maintain relationships. Insulting a man in a low moment because you demand he explain his mistake seems completely antithetical to good relationship-building. Maybe to some reporters only the starters or stars are worth treating well, which is wrong. You never know when a backup will be a star, and by focusing only on the bold names, an amazing story in a different corner of the room could be missed.
And if you really want to know how the sausage is made sometimes, a good reporter knows disgruntled players can be the best sources, especially on struggling teams. But that's only after a relationship has been established, usually through an investment of time. If something goes down that the team doesn't want the public to know about, maybe you get a text one snowy morning and break a big story.
Of course fans want to know how a winning play came together or what went wrong on the fake punt attempt, but Bernard didn't want to offer his breakdown Sunday. Maybe he would have Monday had he been treated differently.
What differentiates a beat reporter is access. What's done with that access is important.