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Sports Journalism On The Frontlines

(CBS/AP)
Say the words "Sports Journalism" and chances are you either think about funny beer commercials or "Boo Yah!"

You don't think of determined "All The President's Men"-style investigative work.

But you should. Don't believe me; ask Mike Fish.

Mike Fish is the ESPN.com reporter who dug and dug into the Pat Tillman fratricide story and came up with a 19,000-word journalistic gem, one called "the most important story ESPN.com has ever done" by the copy chief at the site.

The story begins by asking four main questions about the football-star-turned-soldier's death, and then compellingly answers them in great detail. It's a singular investigative accomplishment that takes the time to "connect the dots" and blow nearly all the fog of war from the story. It opens up:

With the help of a number of other Rangers who were willing to talk about the firefight, along with documents from the Army's investigations, ESPN.com has been able to reconstruct the events leading up to and including the battle scene…
And like all impressive investigations, the story behind the story is one worth writing itself. According to the current issue of American Journalism Review:
Fish recalls the difficulty of talking to Bryan O'Neal, the Ranger who was standing next to Tillman when both were shot. O'Neal managed to survive. Fish flew from Atlanta to Tacoma, Washington, to meet him. After four days of Fish's begging over the phone, O'Neal rescinded his offer. He didn't want to talk.

"He was still in the Army. He had to be careful about what he said," Fish says. "It seemed like a wasted effort." Years later, that effort paid off. O'Neal talked. And provided, Fish says, "one of the most remarkable parts of the story."

Days of begging. Years of persistence. Hours spent gaining trust. That's the modus operandi for a successful investigative piece. It doesn't change with new technology or a faster-paced environment and it's not restricted to quote-unquote hard journalism. The same skills translate to sports, entertainment, any sort of reporting you can think of.

Justice Earl Warren once famously said "The sports page records people's accomplishments; The front page nothing but their failures." By taking a story from the front page and digging into through sports outlet, Mike Fish has written a story worth banner treatment across both news genres.

The story will receive the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Journalism from Military Reporters and Editors next Friday.

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