SBJ/April 23-29, 2012/Opinion

ESPN response: Guest column unfair to network, Poynter

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In recent years, there has been increased scrutiny of ESPN’s editorial practices, decision-making, and internal processes and motivations. While many of these critiques have been fair and constructive, others have consisted of unsubstantiated broad generalizations, inaccurate facts and dubious commentary with little or no reporting.

A recent example from the latter category was a guest column in the SportsBusiness Journal, written by an Auburn University associate professor (March 12-18). We at ESPN have significant issues with the historical misperceptions and factual inaccuracies in the column, which was focused largely on ESPN’s ombudsmen. ESPN and the Poynter Institute partnered in early 2011 for the Poynter Review Project, offering independent examination of our coverage (expanding the role of previous ESPN ombudsmen Don Ohlmeyer, Le Anne Schreiber and George Solomon).

The guest column discounted the value of the Poynter project, claiming that “ESPN will remain at its level of ethics, and Poynter, from its lofty position, will end up with sore arms and improved finances.” That suggests that ESPN routinely behaves unethically and that the Poynter Institute is realizing a sizable financial benefit. Both are patently wrong.

The column offers no evidence of unethical behavior. It does assert we have a “conflict-of-interest filled daily business” and operate under a “double life as an outlet for objective news information and a producer of overly hyped programming.” While no specifics are provided, we assume the implication is that our business relationships conflict with our news reporting.

A few facts: First, it is not uncommon for news organizations to be part of larger companies that have relationships with entities upon which they report. CBS News, for instance, reported about controversy on the show “Two and a Half Men” and CBS Sports reported on the Masters not allowing women members. Like ESPN, CBS has a licensing agreement with the Masters.

These organizations manage this potential or perceived conflict by establishing clear rules and practices. We have a news division that manages our journalism. We have a programming department that acquires rights from leagues and conferences and manages our relationships. Neither interferes with the work of the other. The news group does not dictate our agreements. The programming department does not dictate news coverage. The guest column does not substantiate any ESPN coverage being influenced by business interests.

ESPN’s news division does more investigative reporting than any other sports media organization. We have a substantial stake in the ground with a team of award-winning, aggressively responsible, investigative journalists on all platforms (we recently added a pair of Pulitzer Prize-winning writers). Our goal is to serve the public good while serving the sports fan.

There is also an assertion that the Poynter commentaries are difficult to find on ESPN.com. That is a prima facie example of the absence of fact finding. We post every ombudsman column prominently on the ESPN.com home page, they remain easily discoverable for at least 48 hours, and all are searchable. And readers are aware: Ombudsman columns regularly generate hundreds of thousands of page views, some exceeding 500,000. No other media organization can claim that level of ombudsman readership. Our intention is to maximize exposure. The guest column suggested the opposite without substantiation; that was an easily discoverable fact.

Further, there was a claim that we ignore the recommendations or perspective offered in ombudsman pieces. Simply inaccurate. No column by Poynter or previous ombudsmen goes undiscussed within ESPN. There are rigorous debates, many of which lead to internal recommendations to amend or create policies or practices. Thoughtful suggestions from our ombudsmen amplified the creation of ESPN’s Editorial Guidelines for Standards and Practices, including policies related to transparency, attribution, corrections, media criticism, endorsements, book arrangements, political advocacy and promotion of content.

The guest column cites one example: “Those columns might have encouraged more aggressive coverage of allegations in the case against former AAU president Bobby Dodd.” ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” was the first to report last December the allegations by two former players that Dodd had molested them in the 1980s. What is more aggressive than breaking the story?

There is an insinuation in the editorial that the Poynter Institute is receiving financial advantage in the relationship. It is accurate only to say Poynter is being compensated at a level commensurate to its time and expenses in providing the critiques — far from a financial windfall.

Interestingly, the columnist interviewed Poynter’s Kelly McBride, noting that she “provided much instruction and background … even as [he] prepared an article that would criticize her organization.” Did the author call ESPN? Did he reach out to confirm, refute or clarify facts? The irony, of course, is that we engage Poynter in a sincere attempt at self-examination.

No other sports media organization puts more resources toward transparency. This manifests itself in wide interaction with our audience, via regular editorial chats, an increased social media presence and ESPN Front Row. Our efforts here are unparalleled. No other sports outlet employs this level of examination: The ombudsman role began in July 2005, and we have posted nearly 90 columns over that span.

I am proud of our company’s efforts in these areas and am consistently impressed by the dedication and professionalism of my colleagues, including more than a dozen former sports editors from major metropolitan newspapers. They joined ESPN, in part, because of our reputation, our culture, our ethics and our commitment to the practice of quality journalism.

For a list of examples of ESPN’s enterprise reporting, visit http://frontrow.espn.go.com/?p=27747.

Patrick Stiegman
Bristol, Conn.

Stiegman is vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, and the incoming chairman of the ESPN editorial board.

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