Raheem Sterling and The New-Age Fan Engagement

Raheem Sterling is busy. He is busy being a world-class forward for Manchester City and England and he is busy being a parent. On top of these considerable responsibilities, he is now apparently expected to educate Britain and a fair section of the rest of the world – including a cluster of renowned journalists who claim to know no better – about the media’s role in the racism he experiences both in and on the way to his place of work… !!

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Following a long-noted history of racial abuse by a section of fans as well as suffering from a continuously discriminating attitude from the media, Sterling felt the need to speak up after the Premier League match against Chelsea, during which he stated that he was subjected to a racist tirade from a nearby fan. Sterling took to Instagram to express his concern about the vastly different treatment that white and black players receive from certain sections of the British media. Sterling drew a connection between the negative coverage that black players constantly receive and their treatment by the public.

More than his much-anticipated outburst against the media, the nature of the way in which Raheem Sterling broke his silence on the matter is also important, in terms of framing how the very nature of the relationship between professional footballers or any celebrity and the mass media is starting to shift. Sterling released his statement on the events of Saturday evening on Instagram, where he has 4.2m followers. Such is the nature of the sort of numbers that get thrown around in web engagement that it’s easy to blink and miss this one, but it’s greater than the combined print circulation of the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Daily Star and the Daily Express.

His Instagram post has, at the exact time of writing, received 623k likes on Instagram, more than the print circulations of any of the above newspapers bar the Sun and the Daily Mail.

And it’s not just in terms of numbers in the slowly dying medium of print journalism, either. Raheem Sterling has almost three times as many Instagram followers as The Sun has on Twitter, six times as many as the Daily Express, and almost twice as many as the Daily Mail. To put it another way, his personal reach is now greater than any tabloid newspaper, which further underlines the possibility that we sometimes greatly over-estimate the influence and reach of the tabloid press on the basis of what it used to be rather than what it is now based on the state of the media landscape in 2018. It’s a demographic shift that shouldn’t go unnoticed in recent times…

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Raheem Sterling has, whether intentionally or not, framed his Instagram message with considerable poise. This is his voice, with the rough edges intact, but he doesn’t even mention his own treatment at the hands of the media once.

Instead, he chose to focus on recent reporting of the purchase of houses by his Manchester City team-mates Tosin Adarabioyo and Phil Foden and their very different treatment in a far right newspaper. Entirely predictably, the report framed Adarabioyo as having spent £2.25m on a property “despite having never started a Premier League match”, whilst Foden having bought a property was framed as someone who “buys a £2m home for his mum” and having this described as having “set up a future.” Raheem Sterling credited his audience with the intelligence to be able to join the dots for itself… 

One more example of such fan engagement is the growth of the Players Tribune website since its formation in 2014. It has been a solid example of a way in which professionals within many sports are increasingly choosing to circumvent the traditional media avenues of getting their stories told. Why entrust a story in which you’re honest enough to lay yourself bare to a newspaper if there’s a chance that your words will subsequently be twisted in order to facilitate clicks for money or some other unwritten agenda?

Recent articles there have received considerable praise for their quality and honesty from a reading public that is starting to get a little tired of the perpetual outrage machines that some sections of the media across the world have become, whilst it can hardly be argued that the players need the few thousand pounds that “telling all” to a tabloid newspaper might bring in any more. Small wonder that they’re seeking greater control over their stories… !!

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The general pattern, of far too many senior commentators either ill-qualified or too ignorant to address the subject matter with any consistent degree of care or nuance, is a deeply worrying one. But thankfully, there are fine examples of budding journalists and media forums providing essential commentary on this issue.


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