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When the AP Gets MMA Wrong, the Entire Mainstream Media Follows

There is not, to the best of my knowledge, a single American newspaper reporter whose primary job is covering mixed martial arts. That means to the extent that newspapers (or newspaper-dependent sites like the Drudge Report) feature any MMA coverage at all, it usually comes from the Associated Press.

And that's a serious problem, because the AP apparently assigns reporters who don't understand the first thing about the sport to cover it. That's the conclusion I'd have to draw from this dispatch that moved over the AP wires Thursday morning. The piece is misinformed from the very first word:
Ultimate fighting was once the sole domain of burly men who beat each other bloody in anything-goes brawls on pay-per-view TV.
There is no such thing as "ultimate fighting," any more than there is such a thing as "major league baseballing." There is a sport called mixed martial arts, and the most popular league in that sport is called UFC, an abbreviation for Ultimate Fighting Championship. When you begin a story about mixed martial arts by referring to the sport as "ultimate fighting," you are announcing to your readers that you know nothing about the sport you're covering.

But it gets worse.

The story continues:
But the sport often derided as "human cockfighting" is branching out.
We've now reached the point where the only fun thing about reading newspaper stories about MMA is trying to guess when the words "human cockfighting" will appear. If you predicted the 31st and 32nd words, you win. The next sentence begins even worse
The bare-knuckle fights are now attracting competitors as young as 6 whose parents treat the sport as casually as wrestling, Little League or soccer.
Emphasis mine, because I can't imagine what bare-knuckle fights the AP is talking about. All sanctioned MMA fights feature competitors wearing gloves. What's more, the photo accompanying this AP dispatch clearly shows that the competitors are wearing gloves.

As for parents who send their kids into MMA: Good for them. Have you ever seen 6-year-olds play sports? They're clumsy and weak. I would be much more worried about a kid with no coordination accidentally hitting another kid with a bat in Little League than I would be about a kid hurting another kid in MMA.
The changes were evident on a recent evening in southwest Missouri, where a team of several young boys and one girl grappled on gym mats in a converted garage.

Two members of the group called the "Garage Boys Fight Crew" touched their thin martial-arts gloves in a flash of sportsmanship before beginning a relentless exchange of sucker punches, body blows and swift kicks.
No blood was shed. And both competitors wore protective gear.
I'm guessing the writer means "sucker punches" in the same way he meant "bare-knuckle," which is to he doesn't mean it at all. But it's good to hear that no one was hurt and they were wearing proper padding. And so we can conclude that these little kids, who in most cases wouldn't be strong enough to do serious damage to each other even if they tried, aren't getting hurt, and we can all have a juice box and go home happy, right?
The trend alarms medical experts and sports officials who worry that young bodies can't withstand the pounding.
This is the part where the reader expects a quote from one of those medical experts -- or at least a name of some medical authority who is alarmed.

But no, the AP doesn't quote any of these alleged medical experts. It does quote parents who have positive things to say about their kids' participation in the sport, "which is also known as mixed martial arts or cage fighting," the AP casually mentions.

"Cage Fighting"? Again, the reader waits for the next paragraph to describe Missouri youths shoved inside a chicken-wire box and brutally pummeling each other with one bare-knuckled sucker punch after the other. Alas, the image never comes. Maybe that scene was cut by the editor.

(For the record, "cage fighting" is a phrase like "arena football." It's not an activity you can enjoy unless you have a cage handy. Some mixed martial arts organizations use a ring like boxing, others use a mat like wrestling, still others use a cage. Because of the cost and availability of cages, I seriously doubt there's a single youth MMA organization that uses them.)

Now, back to the misinformation:

Joe Miller, administrator of the Oklahoma Professional Boxing Commission, said youth fights are banned in his state, and he wants it to stay that way.

"There's too much potential for damage to growing joints," he said.

Now, Miller is the only person quoted in the story who says anything negative about young people participating in MMA. And, from what we can glean from the story, Miller isn't a "medical expert." He's a boxing administrator.

Asking a boxing administrator to evaluate the merits of MMA is like asking the CEO of Pepsi to judge the merits of Coke, or a Democratic politician to evaluate the work of a Republican president. Miller might be an exceptionally forthright and unbiased voice, but it's not in his interests to be one.

Everyone who follows either boxing or MMA knows that many supporters of the former worry it will be eclipsed by the latter, and that the relationship between the both sports has been contentious. As such, Miller's opinion is a shoddy basis for judging whether MMA is healthy for kids.

The story ends with a very nice, very positive picture of how parents feel about their children's participation in MMA. So why did the story get off to such a harsh start, with the "bare knuckles" and the "human cockfighting"? I see a few obvious reasons.

Because that's the way newspaper articles about MMA are always framed. This AP writer played it safe by regurgitating the scenes he saw in other stories, and simply added the youth angle.

Because fear sells. I'm no media basher, and I have no problem with a report leading with the most engaging or salacious facts when those facts actually exist. I know "MMA Enriches the Lives of American Youths," is something of a dog-bites-man story. Which is fine. If there's no story here, just don't write the story.

But now it's out there. As shoddy as this story is, now that it's appeared on Drudge, there's a very good chance it may jump all the way to one of the national morning talk shows or evening cable shouting matches.

There's no competition to call the AP out:
The culture of newspaper reporting has long revolved around the urge to not get "beat" by competitors at other papers or news services. With few papers covering MMA, the AP doesn't have to worry much about being shown up by anyone other than bloggers like me.

There are some exceptions. The Orange County Register provides excellent MMA coverage. So does the Dayton Daily News. The Baltimore Sun has had a good MMA blog for the last 16 months, and even though blogger Pramit Mohapatra recently left to start his own blog, the Sun says it's still committed to covering the sport.

But even in those cases, the papers don't have full-time beat reporters assigned to the sport, and considering the way newspapers across the country are cutting staff, it's unlikely that any paper will hire a full-time beat reporter to cover MMA.

Which means it's basically up to the AP to provide almost all the coverage of MMA that American newspaper readers consume, and up to blogs and other new media sources to call them out when they don't.

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