SBD/November 7, 2012/Media

Poynter Review Examines Journalistic Integrity Of ESPN.com's Rumor Central

Rumors at ESPN.com are “packaged into a key product behind the Insider pay wall called Rumor Central,” and the name alone “presents a significant conflict to an organization that wants to be indispensable and highly profitable, yet above the scrum that passes for sports journalism in this digital era,” according to Kelly McBride in the latest entry of ESPN's Poynter Review Project. Where a “completely high-minded news organization would wait to see which rumors grow into something more, and a tabloid would dive in without compunction, ESPN straddles the line, serving up a serious helping of rumors, yet staying away from the most shaky, most sordid whispers.” Insider Deputy Editor Daniel Kaufman said, “Part of ESPN's mission is to serve sports fans wherever they are. RC serves that mission by engaging in sometimes dicey conversations in a way that is clearly labeled as different than news.” The NFL Rumor Central blog “generates between 50,000 and 100,000 page views a day (among paid users).” Kaufman said, “We know we are operating in a gray space here.” McBride noted RC “strives to deliver rumors plus context.” The editors are “always trying to tap into ESPN’s vast array of experts to answer these questions: What does it mean? What’s the potential impact?” ESPN “mostly tries to stay out of the muck.” It is “easier to describe what doesn’t go into RC than what does.” Sexual exploits of professional athletes and “immature rants of college recruits are examples of the kind of material RC avoids.” Much of what gets reported “isn’t really a rumor at all.” In sports journalism, the rumor label “gets slapped onto a lot of content because that’s what the audience is primed to consume.” Some examples of “what passes for rumors on ESPN” include expert analysis, mere observation, well-sourced, on-the-record information, anonymously sourced information, information reported by a competitor and actual rumors.

TOE THE LINE: ESPN is “trying to be both: the upstanding, uber-professional sports newsroom, and the gritty know-it-all gossip-monger.” The company “clearly wants to be on higher ground than sites such as The Big Lead or Deadspin, which famously published Brett Favre’s alleged sexting pictures.” Kaufman said, “We don’t go trolling for comments in chatrooms. We are trying to leverage the expertise that we have.” But RC is “an example of how ESPN brushes up against that boundary of ethical behavior, crosses it ever so slightly, then justifies it by trying to bring virtue to an inherently dishonorable pursuit.” McBride: “It hurts the brand by reinforcing the perception that ethics don’t matter to ESPN when there is money to be made. Kaufman’s clear-eyed explanation of the balance he and his staff walk every day is somewhat reassuring. But mere thoughtfulness isn’t enough to declare something journalistically sound.” Hard-core sports fans have “demonstrated a willingness to consume every type of suspect information,” and ESPN “figures out a way to serve them what they want, whether it’s journalism or not” (ESPN.com, 11/6).
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