SBD/March 4, 2011/Media

Poynter Institute, ESPN Discuss Their New Partnership

ESPN and The Poynter Institute last week announced plans to participate in The Poynter Review Project, an 18-month process "in which a group of Poynter faculty will review ESPN content across all platforms and publicly comment on ESPN's efforts," according to Richard Deitsch of SI.com. Poynter President Dr. Karen Dunlap and Ethics Group Leader Kelly McBride discussed the partnership at length, and excerpts from the Q&A are below.

Q: Why did Poynter want this assignment?
McBride: I think the reason Poynter agreed to this is it offers three opportunities: One, is to help ESPN get better, and if we didn't really believe they genuinely embraced the idea of critique for the sake of self improvement, I don't think we would do it. The second thing is to develop teaching material. ESPN is this massive organization in that they are out there in so many different ways. They have so many arms on this octopus and our job is to understand where journalism is going. ... The third reason is for us to develop some expertise ourselves.

Q: Have you been assured by ESPN that you will have complete independence?
Dunlap: We will follow pretty much the track of the other ombudsman. That is, we will work with an editor who we understand is very much understanding of the independence that is expected. We feel we'll have the level of independence we need.

Q: How frequent will Poynter file ombudsman-like columns?
Dunlap: The general rule is it is a monthly column. But there is also the stipulation of when things come up, we might decide to write something additionally.

Q: Have you considered using social media as part of your charter with ESPN, to speed up the metabolism of responses if the situation warrants it?
McBride: Yes. I have, and we still have to talk about that. I use social media all the time in my work here at Poynter. It makes complete sense but we have not talked about how. I don't think it is whether we will use social media, it is how we will use it (SI.com, 3/3).

THE INSIDE JOB: St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans in a special to SPORTSJOURNALISM.org wrote the ESPN/Poynter partnership "raises an uncomfortable question." Will ESPN "transform itself ethically with Poynter’s guidance?" Or will ESPN "cloak itself in the school’s credibility while largely ignoring its advice?" ESPN Exec VP & Exec Editor John Walsh said, "We want to be held accountable. We want to be transparent. In this ever-expanding age, we think we can improve ourselves. And if an in-house critic helps us do that, that’s great." Walsh noted that ESPN execs "began discussions with Poynter at the end" of '10 as Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer's 18-month tenure was nearing its end. Deggans noted an issue for Poynter could be determining "who exactly is a journalist at ESPN." Walsh said that ESPN is "working on that issue right now, standardizing job descriptions and pulling together its ethical policies for various corners of its business into one form." Walsh "disagreed with many criticisms leveled against ESPN" and called the "notion the company might co-opt Poynter’s credibility 'preposterous.'" He added, "We’ve had three ombudsmen, we felt some of the matter was repetitious, why not try something different? ESPN always operates on the premise we can be better" (SPORTSJOURNALISM.org, 3/3).

SETTING A GOOD PRECEDENT: In L.A., Tom Hoffarth writes ESPN's partnership with Poynter "couldn't have arrived at a much more pertinent time." In a "constantly transforming sports media world where lines are constantly crossed, the dwindling voices of nonpartisan sports-media critics that somehow stay employed in a cutback economy will always try to stay relevant." Hoffarth added, "That said, we expect a media think-tank such as Poynter, which describes itself as something that 'exists to ensure that Americans have access to excellent journalism,' to do a much more thoughtful and thorough job of staying on top of these kinds of gray areas and dissect them in a more timely basis. And with far more multimedia backbone" (L.A. DAILY NEWS, 3/4).
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