SBJ/March 12-18, 2012/Opinion
Poynter relationship unlikely to have impact on ESPN’s ethics
Published March 12, 2012, Page 11
Then the speaker would challenge the friend to bring the one on the chair down. One yank, and mission accomplished. The warning? It’s easier to drag someone down than lift someone up.
Perhaps someone needs to bring a chair to the Poynter Institute. In its role as ethical watchdog for ESPN, Poynter risks dragging itself down in its attempts to lift ESPN — or, at least, to be perceived as lifting ESPN.
The partnership was announced a year ago and hailed in an ESPN announcement as a “new step in media transparency.” Poynter staff would review ESPN’s content and practices and comment as appropriate, while also addressing fan concerns and writing monthly essays. The relationship continues the ombudsman role previously held by former TV producer Don Ohlmeyer. Before him, Le Anne Schreiber, a former New York Times sports editor and author, and George Solomon, former sports editor of The Washington Post, separately held that role. With Poynter, ESPN would gain the institute’s expertise in teaching and encouraging ethical behavior.
In practice, the arrangement seems to be having little effect on how ESPN conducts its conflict-of-interest-filled daily business.
First, some background on Poynter. An excellent training facility for all aspects of journalism, the Poynter Institute was funded by Nelson Poynter, publisher of the St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers, who willed controlling stock in his newspapers to the institute as a funding source. (Disclosure: I attended a seminar there in the late 1990s.)
So it is not surprising that the essays themselves, by Kelly McBride and Jason Fry, are excellent, thoughtful and deserving of consideration by readers as much as by ESPN’s management. But are they more than just words on a screen?
First, have you ever tried finding these essays? You’ll need help, and here it is: On the entry page, scroll down almost to the bottom. Under “Feedback” is a link to “Poynter Review Project.” The name “Poynter” is meaningless to most outside of the journalism industry. You’ll have to ask ESPN why they don’t put the word “ethics” there.
Second, what impact are the essays having? McBride criticized the network’s lack of action after hearing the alleged sexual abuse victim’s taped conversations with former Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine’s wife. Fry and McBride also criticized ESPN’s slow coverage of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. From a practical perspective, those columns might have encouraged more aggressive coverage of allegations in the case against former AAU president Bobby Dodd. Of course, the lack of action in the Fine and Sandusky cases has caused reflection and reform across the board in such cases, but McBride’s and Fry’s particular critiques of ESPN were enlightening.
Their initial response to the charges of racism in coverage of Jeremy Lin did not appear until three days after the worst of the offenses, a headline that cost an ESPN.com editor his job. The headline was posted on Saturday, Feb. 18, and the Poynter response was posted Tuesday, Feb. 21. It is true that ESPN did not announce its job action until later on Sunday, but it would seem that Poynter’s responsibility to the greater sports community would demand a more immediate response and not wait for ESPN. Not very nimble, especially in the age of Twitter.
My concern is the impact on the broader conflicts of interest involving ESPN’s double life as an outlet for objective news information and a producer of overly hyped programming. In these cases — for example, McBride’s appraisal of ESPN’s schizophrenic role in reporting and promoting college football realignment — the columns seem like window dressing. ESPN lets McBride and Fry reflect and ponder, but ultimately, they are left to their own ivory tower, worth only public relations points for ESPN, with no real change.
The third concern involves ESPN’s payments to Poynter. In an email to McBride, I asked her for details on this. She declined, saying that Poynter, although a nonprofit, does not disclose the details of such client contracts. (True to form as a respected Poynter faculty member, McBride provided much instruction and background in our brief email exchange, even as I prepared an article that would criticize her organization.)
In this nondisclosure, I think Poynter errs. Given its status within the journalism profession as an ethical stalwart, its transparency in this relationship should be above the letter of the law. I don’t believe that Poynter is being bought off by ESPN, but I do believe that Poynter could head off any ethical misgivings while showing that it is truly the worldwide leader when it comes to journalism ethics. It takes some organizational courage to show the specific financial benefits of such relationships. That courage is buoyed by confidence that what it is doing in its work with ESPN is right.
In fact, I don’t believe that ESPN will drag the Poynter Institute down. But to extend my opening metaphor, I don’t believe that Poynter will raise ESPN up, either. I’m thinking that, after the 18-month term is up, ESPN will remain at its level of ethics, and Poynter, from its lofty position, will end up with sore arms and improved finances.
John Carvalho is an associate professor of journalism at Auburn University. Follow him on Twitter @johncarvalhoau.