Doping: a journalistic failure?

So why did the media apparently fail to uncover the doping scandal in cycling? Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, who followed Lance Armstrong closely for years and was the subject of a libel case as a result, thinks it was for two reasons:

Firstly, coverage was heavily influenced by the cyclist’s battle with cancer. Secondly, journalists weren’t sufficiently detached – they’d become “fans with typewriters”.

“It felt like the cancer was a big factor from day one,” says Walsh. “A lot of people didn’t think it was appropriate to ask what were very necessary questions. For me, [the cancer] was irrelevant. I didn’t think that should stop us from asking questions.”

Walsh sees adulation of sports stars by journalists as a problem. He added: “You look at the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics… commentators didn’t try to hide the fact that they felt they were fans, not serious journalists working at a very serious event.

“Because the Armstrong story was deemed to be so good, so remarkable, an inspiration to countless millions, who wants to rain on that parade? Who wants to be the one to say, ‘hold on, it may not be what it seems’?

Walsh’s coverage of Armstrong led to a book, LA Confidential: Lance Armstrong’s secrets

A subsequent Sunday Times article provoked a libel claim by Armstrong and an out-of-court settlement for around £600,000. (It’s believed News International, publishers of the Sunday Times, will try to recoup that sum from Armstrong). 

This article appeared on the Royal Canoe Club website on 31 October 2012.