The issues that the media faces in how to cover Naomi Osaka serve as a reminder of some of journalism’s oldest tenets and how too many journalists consistently fall short of meeting that mark.
Naomi Osaka didn’t sign up for this.
No, I’m not talking about the issues she has with certain segments of the media, or how she has become the unofficial face of how to handle mental health hurdles as a professional athlete. Osaka is more than just a phenomenally talented athlete who ranks among the tennis world’s best players.
You can add one more job to the 23-year-old’s list: teacher.
Because the more you see her interacting with various members of the media, the clearer it becomes she is educating them in ways that frankly, they’re not comfortable with.
There’s an almost formulaic approach that members of the media take when it comes to dealing with athletes such as Osaka prior to their participation in a major event.
Media gathers at a site. The athlete arrives, sits behind a table or dias. Media asks questions. Athlete responds. Story filed. But Osaka doesn’t play that game by the rules set out for her.
Rather than deliver trite responses to questions that at times makes her uncomfortable, she has exposed a level of authenticity about who she is that doesn't spit out the answers or soundbites many in the media expect, or are comfortable with.
And they don’t like it.
While most members of the media remember she bursted on to the global scene by knocking off her childhood ideal Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open, they forget the tears and emotional damage caused by the steady chorus of boos she received immediately after winning her first major title. And Katrina Adams, President and CEO of the United States Tennis Association and Chair of the US Open, made matters worse in her comments after Osaka’s win.
“Perhaps it was not the finish we were looking for today, but Serena, you are a champion of all champions,” Adams said.
Many try to cast Osaka as being hypocritical for her willingness to do interviews that amplify her brand or bank account, with being less forthcoming when it comes to other types of interviews while citing those interviews as having a negative impact on her mental health.
It is a fair criticism of Osaka, rooted in facts.
But what seems to be a constant thread in the Osaka kerfuffles with the media, is an element of laziness on the part of reporters when asking questions.
No one should understand better than journalists that words matter.
Not only the ones you write, but the ones you say in asking questions that lead to what you write.
During a recent news conference at the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio, Osaka was asked a range of questions regarding mental health as well as her donating all her prize earnings from the Western & Southern Open to relief efforts in Haiti (Her father is from Haiti and her mother, from Japan).
The tone of the press conference changed for the worse following a question from Paul Daugherty, a reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer.
“You’re not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format,” Daugherty said. Yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform."
Let’s just stop right there.
The substance of the question is legit, but the way it was packaged and delivered was way, way off base. And as journalists, one of the first lessons you learn is that often it isn’t the question that’s asked, but how it’s asked.
You don’t have to be a clinical psychologist to know certain words can trigger certain emotions.
For this writer to begin that question with, “You’re not crazy ...” and think nothing of it is just absurd. The most recognizable athlete on the planet right now when it comes to mental health challenges, and you open a question with, “You’re not crazy ...” and don’t see that as an emotional trigger?
Daugherty’s column was for the most part a flattering piece on Osaka. At one point he wrote, “Honest, thoughtful. . . and unlike any answer I’ve ever gotten in 34 years covering sports in Cincinnati.”
But the takeaway from all this, comes back to one of the first lessons you learn in journalism.
Not just the ones you write, but the ones you say. This becomes particularly important when you are dealing with an athlete or an individual who has well-publicized mental health challenges.
It is a lesson more and more journalists are learning when it comes to working with athletes such as Osaka.
And so this too becomes another job she did not sign up for.