Asking questions is an important part of this job. How you ask those questions are even more significant, as tone and context are essential. There’s a difference between asking a question to get an answer, and asking one to get a quote.
Exhibit A: a press conference for the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
“You are not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format, yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform,” said Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer to Naomi Osaka on Monday, which led to the tennis star tearing up and stepping away from the press conference for a moment. “I guess my question is, how do you balance the two, and also do you have anything you’d like to share about what you did say about Simone Biles?”
“When you say I’m ‘not crazy about dealing with you guys,’ Osaka responded, “what does that refer to?”
“You are not crazy…”
That can’t be the first thing out of your mouth if you want to have a conversation with someone who has become one of the faces at the intersection of sports and mental health. Especially, since the word “crazy” is often lazily used to label people that are struggling with their mental health.
Words matter, and as journalists, we should know that better than anyone.
However, the words that Osaka’s agent – Stuart Duguid – used to characterize how Daugherty asked his question weren’t the right ones, either.
“The bully at the Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player/media relations are so fraught right now,” said Duguid in a statement to Reuters.
“Everyone on that Zoom will agree that his tone was all wrong and his sole purpose was to intimidate. Really appalling behavior.
“And this insinuation that Naomi owes her off-court success to the media is a myth – don’t be so self-indulgent.”
Daugherty’s questions were labeled as “fairly aggressively toned” on social media and in headlines, which is also incorrect. Because while it appears that Osaka – and myself – didn’t appreciate the energy that Daugherty was giving off, I wouldn’t categorize his tone as “aggressive” or “bullying” – that’s a bit extreme.
And the questions that Daugherty asked Osaka were fair game. How he asked them is what got us here. Somewhere along the line, this turned into a “You vs. Us” situation between “the media” and Osaka, instead of being what this is really about — one of the world’s best athletes, who happens to be really shy, not agreeing with how press conferences work. There’s also the narrative that Osaka doesn’t want to talk to “the media” at all when her original stance about not partaking in the press conferences at the French Open was about how harmful the practice has been in the past and the timing of them, particularly after a loss.
“We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m not just going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” she wrote.
I’ve lost count of how many stupid questions I’ve heard in press conferences I’ve sat in. Or how I’ve even grown frustrated with someone in my industry asking a similar question from the one that was just asked, all because they either weren’t paying attention or because it didn’t fit the narrative of the story they wanted to write.
On Tuesday, I was on a panel titled, “Athletes, Mental Health and the Role of Traditional Media” at the 2021 Associated Press Sports Editors annual summer convention. Osaka was the main focus, as different views and opinions about the situation were expressed. But, no matter how people felt, one thing was clear – the 23-year-old is changing how people within this industry think about, and do, their jobs.
“In the first place, I’m a tennis player that’s why a lot of people are interested in me,” said Osaka in responding to Daugherty. “I would say in that regard I’m quite different to a lot of people and I can’t really help there are some things that I tweet or some things that I say that kind of create a lot of news articles and things like that and I know that it’s because I’ve won a couple Grand Slams and I’ve gotten to do a lot of press conferences that these things happen, but I would also say I’m not really sure how to balance the two. I’m figuring it out at the same time you are.”
Since winning the U.S. Open in 2018, Osaka has become a household name. And as a female athlete that’s both Black and Asian, she’s a triple minority – which is rare. The world hasn’t figured out what to do with a tennis phenom of that makeup who destroys her opponents on the court, speaks out about racial issues, and yet, so often shuns the spotlight.
We’ve never seen anything like Naomi Osaka, and neither has “the media.” It’s no wonder we’ve found ourselves in a moment like this. I have no idea where her career will take her, or us. But, I’m hoping that when it’s all said and done, she will be a reason why the people with the questions have learned to ask them in a better way.