Finale: ESPN’s size, power demand scrutiny

November, 12, 2012
11/12/12
3:19
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With this column, the Poynter Review Project’s work comes to an end.

After nearly 40 columns reviewing ESPN content across all platforms, we’ll close with lessons learned over 18 months of observing the network’s various media outlets, examining their successes and failures, and investigating how ESPN works (and sometimes doesn’t).

We offer these observations not just as a starting point for the networks’ next ombudsman but also because it’s increasingly ESPN’s own viewers and readers who serve in that role, sharing their links, thoughts and criticism in real time. This is a relatively new phenomenon for ESPN and other media companies, and ESPNers are of two minds about the torrent of discussion, simultaneously appreciating being the center of so much conversation and worrying about a discourse they can’t control.

We hope what we’ve learned will help readers and viewers understand ESPN better, so they can make more informed judgments -- whatever those judgments may be -- about the network’s decisions.

ESPN isn’t a monolith: ESPN’s television presence includes multiple channels -- ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes and ESPNU stand alongside the likes of the Longhorn Network, the broadband channel ESPN3 and the many flavors of ESPN International. The same could be said for ESPN’s digital operations: ESPN.com gets most of the attention, but there’s also espnW, Grantland, the quintet of powerful local city sites, and overseas, sport-specific outposts such as ESPNFC.com. And we haven’t even mentioned ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, the company’s 30 for 30 documentaries or the unrelenting waves of information ESPN pushes out to mobile subscribers.

Why should readers and viewers keep this startling breadth in mind? Because we all fall into the trap of thinking about ESPN as a monolithic organization with a single point of view, mission and set of values. That’s a reflection of ESPN’s brand power, not the day-to-day reality of what sometimes happens there. To think there is a single ESPN can leave you baffled by ESPN’s decisions, making it tempting to ascribe motive and agency to what sometimes are the mixed messages, mistakes and messy realities of a very big organization pursuing different agendas.

Yes, the ESPN brand is amazingly strong: As its networks and media properties proliferated and diversified, “ESPN” should have become an increasingly meaningless umbrella brand -- but that hasn’t happened. Instead, those four letters have proven more powerful than the divergent missions they encompass.

But the strength of that brand can blind us to the fact that ESPN is a news organization, an entertainment company, a broadcast partner for sports leagues and a business in its own right -- and each of those portions has massive power and reach. On top of that, ESPN is constantly acquiring and shedding other media operations and services, such as those that rank high school recruits or create events like the X Games.

It’s a big family, with different priorities and cultures, and most of the time ESPN maintains an uneasy balance between those competing entities. But sometimes they wind up working at cross-purposes or get eclipsed by each other. And some of ESPN’s worst moments have come when things fall out of balance, as we would argue they did with Tebowmania and most famously with the debacle that was “The Decision.”

Repetition is method as well as madness: If you watch large blocks of ESPN, you sometimes feel like you’re being cudgeled, subjected to the same stories and narratives over and over again with only the name of the show and the identities of the hosts changing. But here’s the thing: Most ESPN viewers don’t watch this way. They’re more likely to watch a show or two, not an entire afternoon’s worth of programming, and ESPN’s programming strategies are tailored for them.

Wall-to-wall ESPN watchers are outliers, with a very different experience from that of mainstream viewers. But they’re also the people most likely to tweet and blog about the company. This means vocal megafans (not to mention media critics and ombudsmen) have a big social-media footprint that considerably outweighs their value to ESPN as viewers.

That’s important to keep in mind when criticizing ESPN for putting a story in heavy rotation; the network’s strategy is designed to catch viewers who tune in for a single show or game, or drop in and out even within individual shows. Churn is ESPN’s challenge; its producers must figure out how to hold the attention of ever-shifting amalgamations of viewers, so they think of this fickle, ephemeral audience almost as if it's made up of on-demand viewers, viewers who don’t want to wait long to hear about the big story in sports.

This is not to excuse ESPN’s excesses (again, we’re looking at you, Tebowmania). And it highlights the fact that ESPN’s reach gives it a critical responsibility as a news organization. Even in today’s universe of websites and blogs, lack of attention from ESPN can starve a story, and repetition by ESPN can amplify one until other stories feel crowded out.

ESPN deserves criticism for its excesses, and it must remain aware of its power in creating and shaping the dominant narratives in sports news. But if you’re one of those wall-to-wall viewers, understanding the network’s perspective on programming and audiences makes it clearer why certain stories and subjects are repeated until they can feel inescapable.

We get the ESPN we deserve: With a few exceptions, during our tenure, we shied away from media criticism except where ESPN’s own standards and practices came into question. Media criticism wasn’t our job, and there’s no shortage of thoughtful critics keeping an eye on ESPN.

But we still got an earful of such criticism from readers who emailed us. And some of what they consistently decried came down to questions of taste -- which, ultimately, are questions about ratings.

For example, take comments from “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith at the recent Blogs With Balls conference. We once called “Numbers Never Lie” a bait and switch -- a show that purports to be about advanced stats but is really just another venue for arguments about heart, momentum and other sports generalities.

Smith’s comments at the conference fell along similar lines: He said that “Numbers Never Lie” began with different goals but “now is a debate show, like most other shows on ESPN. ... I hate to say it’s not about analytics, but it’s not about analytics.”

Unfortunate, but why did that happen? Because, Smith said, ESPN’s research found most viewers didn’t want to watch a show with statistics that had to be explained to them. We’ve heard similar things from other ESPNers; they like smart, dispassionate shows such as “Outside the Lines” as much as we do, but those shows don’t consistently pull in the ratings of, say, “First Take.”

A steady diet of debate shows rather than programs such as “Outside the Lines” might strike some viewers and critics as an unfortunate choice; we said as much, in fact. But such choices don’t amount to violations of ESPN’s standards. Yes, ESPN “plays the hits,” to use the expression we heard a number of times. But television is a hits-driven business. The real question might not be why we get so few shows such as OTL – it’s why we get such shows at all. If readers want such fare -- say, more “30 for 30” and less “Around the Horn” -- they need to vote with their remotes.

The Bristol bubble: There really is a Bristol bubble – the central Connecticut town that houses ESPN’s ever-expanding campus is a nice place but not particularly exciting, offering little to do except eat, sleep and breathe ESPN. This setting -- and the sheer unlikeliness of what ESPN’s founders imagined -- has shaped the network, and continues to do so.

It was a bubble we ourselves found difficult to penetrate. Quite simply, from our perspective, there’s a wariness of outsiders -- including, at times, the Poynter Review Project -- that runs deep through ESPN, and we think it’s amplified by setting.

In ESPN’s early days, the forced insularity of Bristol life fostered a scrappy us-against-them attitude that was a big asset for ESPN, as well as creating a certain boys-will-be-boys cabin fever that the network came to regard as a problem. Those wild days are largely gone, and it’s been a very long time since ESPN could be called scrappy. But some prominent ESPNers date back to that era, and both those times and Bristol continue to shape how they see the world.

We don’t want to overdo the psychoanalysis on this point, but it’s a mindset we think is worth keeping in mind when trying to assess ESPN’s decisions, particularly how it reacts to outside criticism.

The numbers game: In a given year, more than 1,000 content contributors -- anchors, reporters, columnists and analysts – provide coverage across ESPN properties. If you count guests who call in or contribute via satellite on breaking news stories, the number tops 5,000. Most of its entities are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. ESPN.com says it posts more than 800 new content items a day.

With numbers that large, the standards for quality of writing, reporting, editing, production as well as for fairness and accuracy, evolve with the platform. There’s a lower bar for information that makes it onto Rumor Central on ESPN.com, for example, than for what appears on “SportsCenter” -- and that’s as it should be. But because the ESPN brand is so powerful, when someone makes a mistake in the middle of the night on a relatively obscure blog (such as a notorious "KKK-Rod" lead-in that lived online long enough for someone to get a screen grab), critics react as if the error had happened on “SportsCenter” during prime time.

Yes, ESPN makes mistakes every day, mistakes of commission and of omission. But given the amount of content ESPN produces, daily mistakes are neither surprising nor necessarily alarming. The question isn’t whether ESPN makes mistakes; it’s what kind of mistake, and what ESPN does about them. Is there a pattern of young editors using racially charged language carelessly in the middle of the night? (There have been two such cases this year, a number we’d classify as in the gray area between “isolated incidents” and “troublesome pattern.”) Are slips of the tongue treated differently when anchors relatively low on the totem pole make them, compared with what happens to high-profile personalities? Are there types of stories in which ESPN is slow to recognize the broader significance of the issues involved?

It’s hard to judge because ESPN rarely reveals the internal changes it makes in response to external criticism. Often we heard privately that policies were being revised and training was being implemented. But even then, we were often told those changes had been under review before any external scrutiny.

Early in the tenure of the Poynter Review Project, ESPN issued a revised Standards and Practices manual, which addressed many of the contemporary issues, including social media protocols and endorsement guidelines. So it’s clear the network is listening and adjusting, when necessary. The leadership just seemed reluctant to publicly connect the dots between cause and effect.

Maybe that’s the competitive nature of the sports culture or the fact that there is a financial advantage to keeping some internal conversations private. Or perhaps that’s the Bristol bubble at work. Whatever the case, ESPN can be secretive about its internal operations, often to a fault, when your stated goal is transparency. That doesn’t help its image -- or its brand -- in a supersaturated media world in which both critics and consumers increasingly expect openness and responsiveness.

The big picture: ESPN’s critics seize on every mistake, which can make the company’s editors, producers and PR folks defensive at times. That’s understandable; it’s not easy waking up each morning knowing you’re a big target.

But to put it simply ... tough. ESPN’s sheer size and power demand such scrutiny. Media analyst SNL Kagan estimates ESPN will make $8.2 billion in revenue this year. It controls the rights to a huge range of live sports, using that content as fuel for its sports-information engine. ESPN’s fulfillment of its ambitions in recent years has been nothing sort of breathtaking. It understands the primacy of live sports rights in broadcasting today, has the financial muscle, in theory, to buy whatever rights it sees as necessary and has the ambition to think on an amazing scale.

As a result, ESPN has come very close to being synonymous with sports in the United States, with its business deals reshaping the very landscape of college sports conferences, to name just one high-profile example of its power and influence.

This places considerable strain on its journalists. ESPN draws lines between its news division and its business and production arms, and we never heard of an executive storming across that line and telling ESPN journalists what to do or what not to do. At its best, ESPN’s reporting is thorough and uncompromising about matters of great concern to its business partners: Take its recent series on football concussions, or the throw-the-script-away “SportsCenter” that followed the debacle of an NFL replacement ref’s blown call that cost Green Bay a victory in Seattle. Both storylines served fans and undermined the business interests of the NFL.

But although ESPN has sought to separate its divisions and so preserve its journalists’ integrity, there is a massive and inherent conflict of interest here, so the arrangement demands constant monitoring. ESPN is so big that it occupies a position in sports not unlike that of Microsoft in the ecosystem for computer hardware and software in the late 1990s, or Apple’s place at the intersection of hardware, apps and downloads today.

ESPN can’t be an observer or bystander because its mere presence changes things. This is true not just in business but also in journalism: As noted earlier, if ESPN covers a story, it becomes big news; if it ignores it, often it withers. But occasionally, as happened in the wake of the grand jury indictment against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the rest of the world overrules ESPN’s judgment and the network must reverse course and pursue a story it originally treated lightly.

Much of the time, ESPN’s journalism is thorough, professional and of high quality: Able to pick and choose from the world’s best sportswriters, analysts and investigative reporters, it has hired and developed a substantial news operation. That’s sorely needed. Sports might be entertainment, but they’re multibillion-dollar forms of entertainment, and although we want sports to be escapes from our troubles and issues, the truth is that they reflect -- sometimes even magnify -- the world and all its flaws.

Sports are a window into public health; labor relations; institutional power and abuses; government regulation; children and education; and matters of race, class and gender. We need storytellers and watchdogs to explore these issues and questions in sports as badly as we need them to do so elsewhere.

Whether the story is child sexual abuse, head injuries, the proper role of college athletics, performance-enhancing drugs, public funding of stadiums or the advancement of women, we need journalists such as ESPN’s -- and they, in turn, need standards and practices that are clearly and wisely defined, and faithfully followed.

That will allow fans to benefit from ESPN’s enormous resources while insulating them from the network’s considerable conflicts.

And that will help us better see the world through sports.

ESPN straddles the line on rumors

November, 5, 2012
11/05/12
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One of the biggest discrepancies between sports journalism and the rest of journalism is the attitude toward rumors. In most of journalism, rumors are a bad thing. Not just a bad thing, but something respectable reporters try to avoid.

That doesn't mean reporters ignore them, especially when it comes to politics and entertainment. Instead, journalists work to convert rumors to substantiated, sourced information before they see the light of day. Very big, legitimate stories often start out as rumors – think John Edwards and his mistress, which started out as tabloid fodder.

In sports journalism, though, rumors are part of the stock-in-trade. You can’t cover sports without wading into the territory of rumor reporting. In fact, given the explosion of social media, you probably couldn’t cover sports at all if you planned to eschew rumors.

At ESPN.com, rumors are packaged into a key product behind the Insider pay wall called Rumor Central (tagline: News before it’s news.) It caters to a slice of the overall audience that includes gamblers, fantasy players and the most die-hard fans who need to know more than their buddies at the bar. 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.

We get it that you can’t ignore rumors in sports and still be a journalist. There are just too many of them that, whether or not they turn out to be true, have an impact on the outcome of the game. Instead, what partly defines most sports journalism outfits is which rumors they grab on to.

Beat reporters at ESPN track rumors the way air traffic controllers track planes. It’s a constant thrum of activity. Although they might be bringing a story in for a landing or doing the legwork to help another take off, there are dozens of possibilities floating around out there in the atmosphere.

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.

There are more than 700,000 subscriptions to ESPN Insider, almost double what it was four years ago. That includes fans who buy in at $7.95 a month, as well as those who subscribe to the magazine for $39.99 a year. Rumor Central (RC) is a collection of blogs that contain aggregated links about rumored sports transactions and developments sourced from wire services, radio reports, newspapers and other sports sites, as well as reporting that is original to ESPN.

“Part of ESPN's mission is to serve sports fans wherever they are,” said Daniel Kaufman, deputy editor for Insider. “RC serves that mission by engaging in sometimes dicey conversations in a way that is clearly labeled as different than news.”

Most of the items include a short analysis of the rumor from a reporter or analyst within the ESPN tent, setting RC apart from competitors such as NFL Talk or MLB Rumors. Traffic varies among the columns. For instance, the NFL Rumor Central blog generates between 50,000 and 100,000 page views a day (among paid users).

Ten editors who work in various cities around the country staff Rumor Central. They scour blogs, Twitter, other news sites and ESPN’s own vast content, searching for items of interest.

“We know we are operating in a gray space here,” Kaufman said during a phone interview. “We wanted to create a professional rumor product with an ESPN stamp on it.”

To that end, 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.

“There are rumors that we won’t touch that other people will,” he said. Describing the tone RC writers are expected to strive for, Kaufmann said, “You should always believe there is a chance, even if it’s only a slim chance, that the item is true.”

It’s 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.

When we took a closer look at ESPN’s rumor factory, we found another surprise: Much of what gets reported isn’t really a rumor at all. In other areas of journalism, when reporters are delving into rumors, they often try to disguise it as something else. But in sports journalism, the rumor label gets slapped onto a lot of content because that’s what the audience is primed to consume.

Here’s some of what passes for rumors on ESPN:

Expert analysis: In addition to what happens in the game or on the field, part of the excitement of sports is what might happen to the main characters of this drama in the future. A player’s stock rises and falls with his performance. Contracts expire. Teams move. ESPN has an army of people who spend years watching these intricate moves unfold and talking to other people. So when something is about to happen, those reporters and commentators are among the most expert commentators who can say, “Here are the three possibilities, and here is the most likely outcome.”

When that happens, that’s not really a rumor at all. It’s more like qualified speculation. Sometimes it seems like a rumor because the speculator isn’t telling the audience how much of the possibility he thought up in his own head and how much of it he has gathered from others. But it’s still speculation.

For example, this extensive blog analysis by ESPN writer Buster Olney on David Price’s likely trade this winter from the Tampa Bay Rays also led to a similar Rumor Central item.

Mere observation: Take this item reported in Rumor Central: “Late Night at Wrigley: When the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates finally took the field Monday night for their last meeting this season, a rain delay of 3 hours and 37 minutes at the outset created the latest starting time in Wrigley Field history. The first pitch took place at 10:42 p.m.”

Well-sourced, on-the-record information: A good chunk of what appears on the rumor vertical is just the opposite of a rumor. Instead, it’s attributed information. Right there in the copy, you’ll see the name and title of the source. Sometimes it’s information that comes right out of a news conference or media release.

When Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard’s game status game was up in the air, RC sourced the Baltimore Sun, quoting a team official. "'We will see about Bernard,' HC John Harbaugh said Monday, per the Baltimore Sun. 'He's got a little rib deal in there. It's just going to come down to him and how he can deal with that pain.'"

Anonymously sourced information: This information is surfaced by well-connected beat reporters and bloggers from sources who can’t be named but who are in a position to know.

Reported by a competitor: Another category that appears under the rumor headline is information that was also reported by another media outlet. This often gets the “sources say,” or “ESPN has learned” attribution. And it’s impossible to say how much of this is ESPN referencing its competitors and how much of it is anonymous sources revealing information.

For example, this tweet from Jason Beck, Detroit Tigers beat reporter for MLB.com, led to this RC item:

“The Detroit Tigers appear set to miss right-hander Max Scherzer at least one time through the rotation, thanks to a sore shoulder [that] prompted an MRI. Drew Smyly will likely start for Scherzer Sunday, tweets Jason Beck, with Scherzer's start late next week still up in the air. The Tigers are two games behind the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central with two weeks left on the schedule, making Smyly's start against the Twins crucial. Scherzer's status will be reevaluated until the decision on his following start is necessary.”

Actual rumors: This is the information that comes from anonymous sources who aren’t necessarily in a position to know the truth. Differentiated from the anonymously sourced information noted above, reporters cannot peg this information to a source with direct knowledge. Sometimes they have a source with indirect knowledge, such as a guy with the team who heard something, and sometimes it’s information that is just floating around without any roots. There’s a lot of that in the sports world, only a little bit in Rumor Central.

ESPN admits as much and runs this self-description that runs alongside the blog:

Rumor Central represents regular tips and analysis from ESPN sources plus numerous credible external sources from every form of media. We will speculate intelligently and consider future possibilities on open-ended topics. If something looks speculative, it was intended to be.

Translation: You’re getting everything but the kitchen sink.

But as outsiders looking at Insider, we’ve noticed something. ESPN is trying to be both: the upstanding, uber-professional sports newsroom, and the gritty know-it-all gossip-monger.

But can you really have it both ways? Can you have a product called Rumor Central and consider yourself high-minded?

“The problem with rumors is you can justify anything,” said Ronnie Ramos, who teaches at the National Sports Journalism Center, works for the NCAA as managing director for digital communications and is a former sports editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

ESPN 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 says as much.

“We don’t go trolling for comments in chatrooms,” he said. “We are trying to leverage the expertise that we have.

“You’re not reading it to get a thrill. You’re trying to figure out what to do with your flex position [on your fantasy football team].”

ESPN has said it wants to be all things to all sports fans. Everyone agrees that the explosion of social media use has only exacerbated the volume of rumors in the sports world. Four years ago, Kaufman said he spent a lot of time worrying about being first on rumors. These days he doesn’t even try.

“Twitter will always be first,” he said. “What we have to offer is more about context and adding something smart to the conversation.”

Rumor Central 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.

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. Although media organizations often choose to pursue work that isn’t journalistic at its core, when that work undermines the central dedication to journalism values, it is fair to question the overall commitment to journalism.

Hard-core sports fans have demonstrated a willingness to consume every type of suspect information in their quest to get an edge over handicappers, one-up their buddies and satiate an unquenchable desire to know more about the players they deify.

And ESPN figures out a way to serve them what they want, whether it’s journalism or not.

Making the case for standardized policies

October, 3, 2012
10/03/12
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Media organizations today face a host of new pressures, from the growing number of rivals reporting news to the increasing importance of social media in disseminating and sharing that news. Amid such rapid change, news outlets such as ESPN face challenges in taking their editorial standards beyond familiar pages and airwaves to new platforms -- and sometimes it’s the tiniest snippet of text that makes those challenges plain.

Shortly before noon on Sept. 7, an editor for the company’s recently rebranded soccer site, ESPNFC.com, tweeted the following: “Clint Dempsey: ‘I just remember calling my wife and my (mom) and almost wanting to break down in tears because it was a tough time.’ ”

The unsourced tweet caught the attention of Sports Illustrated senior reporter Grant Wahl, and with good reason: It was a quote from an SI column Wahl had posted the night before about the soccer star’s English Premier League transfer from Fulham to Tottenham Hotspur.

Noting the lack of attribution, Wahl responded by calling out ESPNFC on Twitter: “[R]evealing quote from Dempsey. Don’t see a source listed. Where did you get it?”

The answer -- and the accompanying Twitter dust-up -- offers a window into how ESPN is wrestling with standards for referencing rivals’ work and crediting them. It also spotlights what ESPN faces in creating a consistent set of standards and practices to govern all of its worldwide news operations.

As Wahl suspected, the Dempsey quote was indeed from his column. It also appeared in a story ESPNFC posted soon after the initial tweet, one that relied heavily on Wahl’s interview with Dempsey. ESPNFC’s story credited Sports Illustrated but didn’t include a link to Wahl’s column.

Wahl continued to call out ESPNFC, tweeting that he was “[s]till waiting for a response on your Dempsey quote. You post links/sources on ESPN stories. Why not SI’s one-on-one with Dempsey?”

James Dall, an ESPNFC editor based in London, responded on Twitter, telling Wahl that the quote was followed up by a tweeted link to ESPNFC’s story, “which then credits your publication. This is more than some will do, sadly.”

Wahl wasn’t mollified: “Sorry, not buying it. ESPN should be better than this.”

The Poynter Review Project agrees with Wahl -- and so does Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com.

Stiegman said ESPN’s standards and practices require “appropriate and proper credit” when an ESPN report references another news organization’s story. Although the ESPNFC report did credit SI, Stiegman said that “what we did not do, initially, was offer that attribution in the tweet that went out referencing that report. In retrospect, we should have.”

Stiegman said ESPN doesn’t have a specific policy about attribution in tweets, but noted that ESPN’s standards and practices apply to all of its journalistic efforts. There’s no exception for social media such as Twitter.

ESPN’s standards are less clear-cut about when to provide a Web link to another news organization’s report. Stiegman said that ESPN stories generally include such links, particularly in its many blogs or when referencing a report that relies on anonymous sources -- but that every situation is different.

For example, ESPN editors sometimes craft news stories from multiple reports, mixing the reporting of ESPN’s own journalists with references other media outlets -- some of which might be reporting details contrary to ESPN. Although ESPN’s rules for crediting would apply in such a case, Stiegman said that, in such nuanced situations, links to those external reports could be confusing and “may not be in the audience’s best interest.”

In the case of the ESPNFC story, however, Stiegman agreed “it would have been user-friendly to include a link” to Wahl’s column and called the absence “an oversight.”

The Twitter back-and-forth that Wahl initiated brought reminders that no sports-news organization is without its digital sins: ESPNFC’s Dall pointed out instances in which Sports Illustrated hadn’t included credits in tweets, or had posted stories dependent on other sources without links.

But another bone of contention was over divergent U.S. and European journalistic standards. Adam Digby, an Italian football correspondent for ESPN, argued on Twitter that it was very “rare to see credit” for quotes on social media, especially tied to European media sites, and said Wahl was “attempting to hold ESPN to a standard that simply does not exist.”

Twitter, Digby argued, “is like writing a headline, as long as credit is in the story I really don’t see the issue at all.” Such a thing, he suggested to Wahl, was “common practice … if it were my quote, I’d be more than happy with it.”

“Enjoy the cesspool over there then,” Wahl retorted. He later clarified that, saying he was referring to journalism practices in parts of Europe, not to ESPN.

Wahl’s gibe was harsh, but it’s true that news organizations in different parts of the world have different journalism philosophies. And those differences sometimes extend to ESPN’s various outposts. Moreover, not every ESPN outlet is homegrown: ESPNFC began in 1995 as Soccernet.com, an independent site. ESPN acquired the site more than a decade ago, and rebranded it as ESPNFC.com this summer.

But ESPN is working to eliminate such internal inconsistencies.

Stiegman acknowledged that “there are, unquestionably, cultural journalistic differences,” adding that ESPN editors from various regions had been engaged in “a healthy and fair debate” about them. He added that plans are under way for "a much deeper alignment" of philosophies and standards with those of ESPN's U.S. operations.

One facet of the skirmish between Wahl and ESPNFC is the practice of aggregation -- making use of another reporter’s work in bringing a story to your own readers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with aggregation. The explosion in digital news has created a new class of journalists who are also skilled aggregators, gathering material from disparate sources and creating link-rich roundups of topical information and analysis. (ESPN’s Buster Olney is one such aggregator, as well as a veteran reporter.) An aggregated bit of news can be the seed for shrewd analysis.

And the Web’s many blog posts, commentaries, reactions and analyses are all ultimately exercises in aggregation -- all of it powered by the possibilities of the link.

But there’s a dark side to aggregation. An excerpted paragraph, quote or even a headline can supply enough information to keep many readers from clicking through to the underlying story. That has led to a brawl within the journalism world about the value of aggregation and what standards, if any, ought to govern it.

ESPN’s policies for attribution and credit strike us as sound, and ESPN is right to apply them to social media, as well. The relative novelty of Twitter doesn’t make it a Wild West where news organizations can shed their journalism standards.

We would suggest, however, that ESPN re-examine its standards for linking to other organizations’ stories. Links are intrinsic to responsible aggregation, simultaneously serving as sound journalism ethics and good customer service. They aren’t just a courtesy but a way to show your work, whether it’s giving credit in a news story or linking to an opposing viewpoint so readers can judge whether an opinion piece was fair.

To us, that calls for erring on the side of linking, and ESPN’s argument that it can be confusing to send readers to stories with potentially contradictory information strikes us as well-intentioned but not terribly helpful.

The problem, as we see it, is that argument conflates two kinds of readers.

Readers with a casual interest in a news development probably will skip over any links in an ESPN story about it. (There’s that dark side of aggregation again.) Readers with greater interest in a news development, on the other hand, might want to read everything they can -- and will understand that different news organizations might be reporting different things. Not including links protects readers who wouldn’t click anyway at the expense of readers who won’t be troubled by contradictions.

Finally, we think ESPN’s effort to standardize practices worldwide is a worthy one.

Online, any story has a potentially global audience, but readers don’t alter their expectations based on where a story is produced. Rather, they set those expectations based on the brand name a story carries.

“At the end of the day, the four letters consistently tied to all of our coverage are ESPN,” Stiegman said, adding that “those four letters carry a brand statement and a quality commitment to journalism that we need to adhere to.”

ESPN takes stand with concussion series

September, 24, 2012
9/24/12
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With the National Football League once again laying claim to fans’ Sundays, ESPN rolled out a five-day package of investigative reporting and feature stories last month across its various platforms -- ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines,” Grantland, and college and recruiting sites.

The result, Football at a Crossroads, caught the attention of the Poynter Review Project for several reasons:

• It was an ambitious and effective display of journalism and storytelling, told with every arrow in ESPN’s quiver.

• We’ve criticized ESPN for struggling with the conflicts between its journalism and its multibillion-dollar business relationships, but this package showed its journalists doing unflinching work despite such challenges.

• Finally, it showed that ESPN can be an effective advocate, using its resources to explore a subject many sports fans want to ignore.

We’ve previously challenged ESPN to use its pre-eminence in sports information and journalism to shine a light in dark corners and encourage real change -- most recently after the revelations about Jerry Sandusky and Penn State. The issue of concussions in football isn’t as clear-cut as the problem of sexual abuse of children, but in our view ESPN has a role to play here, too. The question is what that role should be and where to draw the lines between investigation and advocacy.

First, the package. With more than 27 articles and videos, the ESPN series made clear the scope of what football faces: lawsuits from thousands of players, a growing number of parents who don’t want their children to play football and a debate over how to make football safer. Underlying all this is the fact that we‘re just beginning to understand the effects of years of concussions and “subconcussive” hits on athletes’ brains -- depression, loss of impulse control, vertigo, dementia, ruined and shortened lives.

Efforts to make football safer have been underfunded and indifferently pursued. And ultimately, there might not be a solution: Brains are extremely hard to protect, and by making helmets safer, equipment makers might have actually turned them into more effective weapons. This information unfolds over a number of stories and videos. Some highlights for us:

• Peter Keating’s look at the ImPACT concussion evaluation system, the de facto standard in football and other sports despite questions about the reliability and validity of such tests. Keating explains both a complicated process and a rat’s nest of conflicts of interest with admirable clarity.

• Kevin Van Valkenburg’s examination of safety research at schools such as Virginia Tech and Stanford, and how it does and doesn’t offer hope for understanding and measuring head impacts and preventing brain trauma. The reporting is clear-eyed and powerful -- and an accompanying video is devastating, as the NFL refers questions to the very safety expert who had made it clear that he’s frustrated by the league’s lack of action.

We were equally taken with the package’s strong storytelling. Billions of dollars are at stake, yes, but this work also compellingly chronicled the impact of these injuries on people’s lives. Some highlights:

• “Outside the Lines” on the story of Donnovan Hill, a 13-year-old two-way star left with a broken neck and huge medical bills by a collision in which he led with his head. Interviewer Tom Farrey tells Hill’s story and confronts his coach about allegations that he and other Pop Warner athletes were taught to use their heads as weapons. Farrey’s approach is smart and unsentimental, and the story of Hill and his coach will stick with you.

• David Fleming’s nuanced portrait of Scott Fujita, a key figure in the New Orleans Saints bounty investigation who emerges as the face of an NFL in transition. Fleming’s fine reporting allows Fujita to speak for himself. His discussion of how he went from a schoolboy taught to be “a Spartan” to a husband and father worried about protecting his brain might be the most eloquent statement in a package with no shortage of them.

• Bridging both these categories is a terrific piece by Grantland’s Jane Leavy about Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who’s an expert in chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- and a passionate football fan. It’s both a rich character study and an unflinching exploration of the devastating effects of brain trauma on football players’ lives. Leavy’s chat with ESPN readers and segment on the “Mike & Mike” radio show were also superb introductions to the issue.

Curious about how the package came together, we talked with senior coordinating producer Dwayne Bray, who oversees ESPN’s TV enterprise unit, and Chris Buckle, ESPN.com’s senior editor for investigations.

The package’s origins date back to the spring, according to Bray. ESPN has covered the concussion issue before, but with the NFL facing a growing number of lawsuits, John Banks, NFL senior deputy editor for ESPN.com, proposed a late-summer series exploring the issue. Bray, Buckle, Banks and other producers and editors across ESPN’s various platforms met to begin shaping the coverage.

Bray said cross-platform packages are becoming more commonplace: ESPN’s content brain trust is together on the Bristol campus; reporters are used to working with their counterparts in other media; and people think first about stories before worrying about platforms.

Buckle agreed, saying that the need to evangelize cross-media efforts has passed and that stories in the Football at a Crossroads package naturally found their way to “the right platform” based on whether they were visually interesting, demanded in-depth explanations and so forth. But he noted such efforts still require “constant care and feeding. … People get it, certainly. But it doesn’t mean it happens easily.”

Although the Football at a Crossroads stories were mostly very good, we thought ESPN could have made its efforts more effective in a couple of ways.

For one, the package lacked a natural entry point and overview. A reader looking for an overview of a complicated issue had to assemble it from stories such as Mike Fish’s article, Leavy’s effort and J.R. Moehringer’s tormented piece in ESPN The Magazine.

Bray acknowledged the point but considered the suggestion a more traditional approach better suited to a newspaper series. We disagree, in part because ESPN’s work on this package will be passed around and found via search by football fans for months. Readers who didn’t read the stories in real time arrive with little guidance about how to best navigate a complicated series.

Why is that important? Because this is an issue many football fans still react to with ambivalence or denial. (For depressing proof, check out the reader comments on the articles and videos.) An overview would help fans, parents and young players educate themselves. In the absence of an overview story, ESPN should consider a wiki or topic page that would serve simultaneously as an introduction and a way of organizing this material, giving it every opportunity to be read. Perhaps this page on concussions -- which we didn’t see linked from the football package -- could be a starting point.

Finally, ESPN should weigh in more strongly on how to make football safer -- and what should happen if that proves impossible. Jeffri Chadiha offered 10 suggestions, but his take should be the beginning of that effort, not the end. We’d like to see more radical proposals and a vigorous debate involving players, physicians, parents, league officials and others, presented under the Football at a Crossroads banner and made easy for readers to find. Bray told us ESPN considered holding a television town hall on the subject but had to abandon the idea based on logistics as the season approached. Reviving that concept would be a terrific next step.

Both Bray and Buckle pushed back when we suggested ESPN ought to have advocated more forcefully.

“We have enough people doing that,” Bray said. “This project, to me, was about reporting. I think we can never have enough of that.”

The two men oversee investigative reporters, and we concede the point that advocacy isn’t a proper role for their unit. And it’s true that strong investigative reporting is its own form of advocacy, bringing issues to light and encouraging discussion. But, as Bray noted, ESPN has plenty of people who do express opinions.

The wisest thoughts on the matter -- and debates on shows such as “Outside the Lines” -- would be a valuable addition to ESPN’s efforts. With more than a million U.S. high school kids playing football, the question of brain trauma and football isn’t just a sports issue; it’s also one of public health.

Buckle told us Football at a Crossroads isn’t finished; multiple stories bearing that logo will appear from ESPN in the coming weeks and months, including in-depth investigative stories. We’re glad to hear it, and we look forward to watching how ESPN continues to explore a difficult story that needs to be told.

Olympics coverage varied across platforms

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
5:02
PM ET
When U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin won Olympic gold in the 100-meter backstroke, journalists got to test their storytelling skills. ESPN the television network and ESPN.com took vastly different approaches.

Those two ESPN platforms illustrate what can sometimes be a philosophical divide between TV and digital within the Worldwide Leader in Sports, as well as their basic definitions of what is newsworthy.

Many fans wrote to the Poynter Review Project, frustrated that the Olympics didn't get more airtime on "SportsCenter," ESPN's premiere news show. Over the 17 days of the games, relatively few Olympic feats made Top 10 Plays, (including those by Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, and the U.S. women's soccer team's gold medal match.)

With so many iterations of the show, it's difficult to consume or quantify how much coverage "SportsCenter" devoted to the Olympics. We watched about half of the morning shows throughout the games, and to us, it seemed scant, in the absence of Top 10 Plays, but even more in the absence of good storytelling.

"'SportsCenter' provided appropriate coverage of the Olympics, some would say even substantial at times, based on the restrictions it had," Craig Bengtson, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for "SportsCenter," wrote in an email. "I think because the program is live 18 hours or more per day, it can be challenging for viewers to understand the level of coverage on any one story unless they watch every hour, because each 60 minutes is often different from the last."

We were watching the day after Missy Franklin's dramatic backstroke race, a mere 14 minutes after she'd finished qualifying for the 200-meter freestyle, and didn't see her in Top 10 Plays. Nor did we see any of Gabby Douglas' spectacular stunts that carried her to the gold-medal stand. Nor did we see the American women's track team's 4x100 relay, which smashed the previous world record and inspired rival Jamaican sprinter Veronica Campbell Brown to marvel, "I feel females don't get as much respect as their male counterparts. We need to get more records. ... The result was phenomenal," according to Reuters News Service.

The rights to Olympic video are restricted, more so than almost any other sporting event. Of the hours and hours of amazing video every day, NBC released only the bare-bones highlights. Much of that video was for TV only. No amount of money can change this, said Mike Leber, ESPN senior coordinating producer for news coverage. NBC had the American rights to the Olympics and dictated what video was available to other broadcasters.

NBC also dictated when the video was available and for how long. Video wasn't available until 3 a.m. or later, when NBC's Olympics programming was off the air on the West Coast, and there were no digital highlights available for the Web.

That made telling the story of the Olympics difficult, but not impossible. And that gets us back to Franklin.

The day after her win, depending on the hour, "SportsCenter" described the event, showed a still photo or a couple of seconds of voice-over video, and moved on. It was a minimalist approach to the coverage of an amazing athletic feat accomplished by a 17-year-old with a good backstory.

Meanwhile, ESPN.com took a different approach. Senior writer Wayne Drehs sidled up to Franklin's parents in the stands while their daughter got her gold medal. In the time that it takes for our national anthem to play and the American flag to rise, he gathered the yarn for this story, which (if you didn't read it all the way through the first time) has a cute kicker involving her protective dad.

These same differences in coverage surfaced repeatedly over the 17 days of the Olympics. While ESPN.com got creative, ESPN TV often turned to "counter-programming." In this case, it involved deep and extended NFL coverage, particularly from training camps of the Denver Broncos and New York Jets. Anyone who cares about Peyton Manning's return to health or whether Tim Tebow will rise from the second string got the story, and then some.

And fans noticed. In letters to the mailbag, readers complained of "Jet lag," for the overindulgence on a second-string quarterback, as well as the noted absence of Olympic moments from "SportsCenter" broadcasts, and particularly from Top 10 Plays.

"I am a huge sports fan and wonder why for the past week ESPN has been doing nothing it seems but covering the Jets. This is such a turn off," wrote Tony Carroll. "Covering a team for days that didn't make the playoffs and are only relevant because of a loud mouthed coach and a BACK-UP quarterback. With so many other good teams and stories in the NFL, why focus on them so much???"

Other ESPN fans were cynical about the motives behind the network's choices.

"To the objective observer this appears to be a case of ESPN making a business decision to downplay sports that it does not have the TV rights to. If ABC had won the right to cover the Olympics I think it is a distinct probability that the Olympics would be the lead story," wrote Alex Holtan. "This is just one example of what has seemed to me to be a distinct bias against sports not covered by ESPN and ABC." (ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney if those networks had the Olympic rights, the lead story or a lack of video highlights would not be discussions among ESPN fans).

Perhaps the most notable miscue involved Alex Morgan's last-minute overtime goal in the U.S.-Canada soccer semifinal. It had all the makings of a classic Top 10 play. Yet every Top 10 Play in the 8 a.m. "SportsCenter" broadcast on Aug. 8 was from Major League Baseball.

Bengtson disagrees with the criticism. He told us he believed "SportsCenter" lived up to its obligation to cover the Olympics.

"We look at what are the most intriguing stories and we address them," he said in an interview this week. "It's challenging, but I think our folks in London did a good job covering the story, as well as we could."

Part of the problem, Leber told us, was the delay on video rights. Top 10 Plays are edited around 1 a.m. ET. But the Olympic video was not available until 3 a.m. That meant that when Olympic moments were included in Top 10 Plays, as they were when Bolt won the 100-meter dash, the segment was re-edited later in the morning.

That should have happened every morning. And if the video was not available, "SportsCenter" could have done something special, such as mention the plays that deserve to be in the Top 10, but couldn't make the cut, because the video wasn't available.

In a way, "SportCenter's" failure to get creative parallels the broader story of new and old media that we at Poynter see in all of journalism. Traditional platforms tend to have traditional approaches covering the news. Because they have fewer established conventions, journalists working on younger platforms are naturally more creative.

Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, said of the approach on the digital platforms, "We were not going to let lack of video rights serve as a deterrent."

Instead, ESPN sent a staff of 13 people to London, including writers from espnW and Grantland, backed up by an equal number of people writing from back home, instructing them to provide as much real-time information as possible and enhance NBC's coverage with great analysis and unique storytelling.

ESPN.com led the site with Olympics coverage every day. There was also an Olympic home page, a ScoreCenter and a constantly updated schedule. Those entry points all generated strong traffic, Stiegman said. The average number of visitors to ESPN.com in any given minute was up more than 30 percent over the Beijing Games.

Because the content was unique, fans kept coming back. In fact, Olympics video coverage on the site, even without highlights, was a hit, generating 23.3 million starts during the Games. Another way to look at it: The collective video, along the lines of two talking heads analyzing women's soccer, outpaced the popular video of the photo shoots from ESPN The Magazine's body issue.

"SportsCenter" sent five people to London: two reporters, two producers and a cameraman. The show also had access to material from the staff at ABC news, ESPN International and ESPN.com. Yet, with only three to four minutes of Olympics-related content in each show, those resources were not always evident on the air.

Over on ESPN.com, new content was popping up almost hourly. Bonnie D. Ford wrote this piece deep with history when Allyson Felix won gold in the women's 200-meter dash.

Grantland's Bill Simmons got out of his comfort zone with London Chronicles, which provided a fan's viewpoint of many of the lesser-known sports (and a fair amount of basketball, too).

There was also Douglas' first-person journal, and this week, an exclusive excerpt of U.S. women's soccer player Hope Solo's controversial new book.

There was almost too much great content to consume online. By comparison, if you were just watching ESPN on TV, you might think the Olympics were not that big of a deal in the world of sports, less important, say, than the Little League World Series (which we love.)

When "SportsCenter" did tap into some of this content, it was refreshing, like this wrap-up that ran on the last day and was translated to a "SportsCenter" segment. But they didn't do enough, and the TV audience missed out.

"SportsCenter" is the 800-pound gorilla at ESPN. The flagship product, it brings in substantial revenue. On weekdays, the show airs across the various channels for a total of 18 hours. But that doesn't mean the show will be immune to the habits of consumers who increasingly seek out unique content on compelling topics.

Granted, a lack of video is a much bigger problem on television. We get that. But three to four minutes an hour is just not enough acknowledgement of all the great sporting moments that happened daily in the Olympics.

What else could the producers of "SportsCenter" have done? They could have created a special daily list of Olympic moments, explaining that the video wasn't available because the rights were restricted. They could have featured spectacular still photography. They could have done a daily feature on one untold Olympic story. They could have given hourly updates of the daytime Olympic events, especially those that NBC wasn't broadcasting live. And "SportsCenter" certainly could have tapped into ESPN.com content and contributors more often.

Sure, some people would have cried, "spoiler." But if you're on the Internet during the day, as many of us are, it's impossible to avoid seeing results. Our media consumption habits have changed with technology, and our media providers need to keep up.

Because of these changes, the audience is more understanding of the limitations media providers face. Fans would prefer that "SportsCenter" document the entire sporting world with the freshest content it can, rather than pretend that a sporting event is not significant, simply because the video is not available.

As ESPN's global audience grows, it will encounter more and more sporting events for which the video rights are restricted. It's time to follow the lead of the entrepreneurs at the network and innovate a new way to cover events fans care about.

Wording, attribution should be sacrosanct

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
10:48
PM ET
Late last month, Jarrod Rudolph, an Orlando, Fla., writer for RealGM.com, tuned in to the 10 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter.” A little more than an hour earlier, Rudolph had reported that Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan had met with Dwight Howard, the disgruntled Magic star who was seeking a trade.

Now, Rudolph was curious to see whether ESPN would pick up that bit of news.

Indeed, anchor Chris Cotter reported the Hennigan-Howard meeting, crediting “sources.” But what Cotter read on "SportsCenter" was almost exactly what Rudolph had written.

Rudolph told the Poynter Review Blog that he waited for Cotter to credit RealGM but heard nothing. He played the report back to make sure he hadn’t missed it. Then he took his case to Twitter: “How does the anchor on Sportscenter read my article verbatim and not credit me? That’s ri-damn-diculous.”

From there, ESPN’s critics picked it up.

What happened here?

Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, told us that a “SportsCenter” segment producer copied part of RealGM’s account into Cotter’s script, then erred by only partially rewriting it after ESPN and other news outlets worked to match the story.

Here’s how the process normally works, according to Doria:

ESPN’s TV news desk is generally staffed by three editors. One of their jobs is to compile an in-house newswire of current stories that have been reported by ESPN, The Associated Press, other news organizations, websites and blogs -- anything, Doria said, “that we think has some credibility.”

The origin of stories is noted on the newswire, which is in turn the basis for the “hot list” of stories to be showcased to get on ESPN’s shows and otherwise be disseminated to readers and viewers.

Doria said ESPN credits news entities that break news, but then works to confirm information itself and watches what other organizations are reporting. As other news entities begin to report the same story and ESPN itself gets confirmation from sources it deems credible, the credit is typically changed to “sources.” (Doria noted that “blockbuster” stories are handled differently, with ESPN continuing to give credit to appropriate outlets for them for some time.)

Doria said that ESPN confirmed the Howard report, which Yahoo also had reported. A “SportsCenter” producer then copied the RealGM story about Howard from the newswire into Cotter’s script, changing the reference to RealGM’s reporting to “sources” based on the twin confirmations. The next step was to rewrite the item for Cotter to read on the air. But that step was never taken, a mistake Doria blamed on a “lack of communication” as the producer tackled breaking news.

“This stuff happens from time to time,” Doria said, adding that “you’d like it never to happen.”

Doria said ESPN has since sent out a memo to staffers reminding them how the process is supposed to work. ESPN said it has apologized to Rudolph, and Rudolph said that “SportsCenter” credited RealGM on a similar report later that night.

The “SportsCenter” producer responsible for the mistake wasn’t disciplined, Doria said.

“I don’t think [the misattribution] should have happened, but people make mistakes,” he said.

We agree that this kind of thing happens in the crush of breaking news and think it’s wise of ESPN not to automatically penalize such missteps. (Although we do still wonder why anchor Max Bretos was treated less forgivingly in what seems like a similar situation.)

But we also cringe to hear that something was copied, even if it’s for preparatory purposes in the newsgathering process. The background facts of any news story quickly become common knowledge and common property, and reporting is built on other reporting. Journalists generally accept this, albeit with some grousing. Wording, on the other hand, is sacrosanct -– which makes it imperative to keep information gathered from other news outlets separate from one’s own work.

If another organization’s wording is copied -– say, from a newswire to the first draft of an anchor’s script -– you have an embarrassing error waiting to happen unless someone takes steps to prevent it. That’s a dangerous way of working, given the massive volume of information ESPN deals with.

We’d suggest that ESPN forbid copying other organizations’ words into scripts or other material going out to readers and viewers. Since rewriting is a necessary part of the process, move that step slightly earlier, with the attribution only removed after the rewrite is complete. Would that make the news process slightly slower? Perhaps. But if the starting point is another organization’s work, ESPN is already following and matching, not leading. A small tweak or two in the workflow, we believe, would lead to fewer accusations and apologies.

Reporter in the eye of a Twitter storm

July, 26, 2012
7/26/12
2:51
PM ET
Earlier this month, ESPN basketball reporter Chris Broussard found himself at the center of a Twitter furor over his coverage of free-agency decisions by NBA guards Deron Williams and Eric Gordon.

Many sports fans watching Twitter on July 3 concluded that Broussard, a veteran reporter, didn’t have a very good night.

Shortly after 7 p.m., Deron Williams tweeted: “Made a very tough decision today….” followed by a link to lockerz.com, a social media site for sharing images and video. That link led to a photo of the Nets’ new logo: Williams had decided to stay with the team for its move to Brooklyn.

At 7:15 p.m., Broussard tweeted “source: Deron Williams tells Nets he’s staying in Brooklyn,” following that four minutes later with “just got this text from Deron Williams: ‘staying in Brooklyn.’”

Other NBA writers, meanwhile, were also reporting Williams’ decision to stay, except most were noting that Williams had broken the news himself on Twitter.

Later that night, Gordon decided to leave New Orleans and sign a four-year, $58 million deal with the Phoenix Suns. (The Hornets would eventually match the Suns’ offer.) At 10:20 p.m., Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic posted a story to that effect, passing along a Gordon quote in a prepared statement from agent Rob Pelinka: “After visiting the Suns, the impression the organization made on me was incredible. (Suns Managing Partner) Mr. (Robert) Sarver, (President of Basketball Operations) Lon Babby, (General Manager) Lance Blanks, the front-office staff and Coach (Alvin) Gentry run a first-class organization and I strongly feel they are the right franchise for me. Phoenix is just where my heart is now."

Shortly after that, Broussard published three tweets. In the first, at 10:27 p.m., he noted the agreement, which he attributed to sources. Five minutes later, he tweeted that “Gordon told me his desire is to play in Phoenix, not New Orleans.” And then, at 10:33 p.m., Broussard tweeted “Eric Gordon told me this: ‘I strongly feel (the Suns) are the right franchise for me. Phoenix is just where my heart is now.’ ”

Broussard soon became a Twitter punching bag, mocked for reporting things everybody already knew and claiming them as his own. To those connecting the dots, it looked as if Broussard’s source for the Williams news was Williams himself and the reporter was treating a public tweet like a private message. Then Broussard seemed to have either passed off a prepared release from an agent as a personal communication from a player or lifted it from another reporter.

According to Broussard, what happened was rather different.

Broussard said he had been working on the Williams and Gordon stories up until the night of July 3. That day he had tweeted that Williams was working out at the Nets’ practice facility, and the day before he had tweeted that Williams and the Nets were meeting and that Gordon was having dinner with the Suns and an offer might be forthcoming.

Broussard told The Poynter Review Project that he was busy with TV and radio on the evening of July 3 and was alerted to Williams’ tweet by the ESPN news desk. He said he saw the tweet but couldn’t access the Lockerz image. So he texted a couple of sources, who told him Williams was staying with the Nets, and got confirmation of that in a text exchange with Williams himself.

“I had been texting with him throughout the process,” Broussard said.

As for Gordon, Broussard said he learned shortly after 10 p.m. that Gordon had committed to Phoenix’s offer and got a quote from Pelinka that was attributable to Gordon. He worked up the story and sent it to the news desk, thinking he was the only one with the quote, then tweeted the news. It wasn’t until after that, Broussard said, that he saw The Arizona Republic also had the quote.

“I thought it was an exclusive,” Broussard said.

Why did he attribute the quote directly to Gordon instead of noting it came through his agent? Because, Broussard said, he viewed Pelinka as a source he didn’t want to reveal -– which a full attribution would have done. The Arizona Republic’s Coro told us that Pelinka texted him, adding that “I don’t know for sure, but my impression is that the agent called to tell the news to me and Chris.” Coro couldn’t say who else got the quote, but he added that he knows it didn’t go out in a mass email because other reporters asked him how he got it. (Pelinka didn’t return messages we left at his agency.)

After speaking with Broussard, we find his account plausible. Reporters rushing to get a story out have a soda-straw view of the news, and readers reloading Twitter or jumping from site to site often have a fuller picture of what’s been reported by many news sources.

What’s more, those news sources all flow into a single river of news. The chronological nature of Twitter timelines can make a series of tweets look like cause and effect, when the reality might be that different reporters are working on stories in parallel and tweeting at different times.

That said, a few conclusions:

Broussard sweetened the attribution on the Gordon quote in his favor, and was caught out when the quote turned out not to be exclusive and was attributed more fully by Coro. What Broussard did isn’t terribly uncommon, but a small falsehood is still a falsehood. As for the desire to protect a source, that’s understandable but is neither an excuse nor applicable here -– tweeting “Eric Gordon said this” would have done the job without misleading the reader the way "Eric Gordon told me this” did.

Broussard told us he filed stories to the news desk before tweeting, saying that was ESPN policy. But as we discussed in a post earlier this month (which was published after these events occurred), that doesn’t seem to be the case: Once a piece of news is vetted, it begins rolling out to various ESPN platforms and can be tweeted in advance of an actual, fully written story. If Broussard had proceeded in that fashion, his tweets would have been more timely. Broussard is far from the only reporter uncertain about this point; his experience is yet more proof that ESPN needs to dispel the confusion here.

Broussard and other reporters need to consider that readers consume news very differently than they once did, with many sports fans taking in lots of media reports simultaneously and combining media competitors working in isolation into one undifferentiated feed. It’s not realistic to expect reporters chasing a fast-moving story to inventory their competitors before filing -– their job is to find something out, get it verified, and get it out to readers and viewers. But, after filing, reporters do need to be cognizant of what was said, as well as when and how it was said. And they have to be quicker than ever in knocking down misconceptions and owning up to mistakes. Broussard acknowledged this in our conversation, saying that “I need to start following Twitter more closely so I know as best I can what other writers and players are putting out.”

This story caught fire because it fit with an oft-heard perception among other media members and readers that ESPN routinely steals other organizations’ scoops. It’s an accusation not limited to media rivals, either: In September 2011, former "SportsCenter" anchor Josh Elliott made waves when he told the Blogs With Balls conference that “they just started stealing scoops. … I felt horrible.”

Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, disputed that, telling Poynter Review in an email “I’m not sure why or how Josh came to that conclusion,” and adding that ESPN credits many other news organizations and sources on "SportsCenter," The Bottom Line and elsewhere.

Sometimes, Doria said, others report stories using anonymous sources, and ESPN then learns the same information through its own anonymous sources that it deems trustworthy. In such cases, he said, “We will often report that ESPN has 'confirmed’ a story that was reported earlier. At times, people have viewed this as us taking credit. We see it instead as taking responsibility for reporting; we are telling viewers that we now have sources that we know telling us something and we feel more strongly about its credibility.”

Accusations of scoop stealing are a part of beat writing, and ESPN writers sometimes think they've been done wrong, too. Basic ethics and professional courtesy are reasons enough not to swipe other people’s stories -- but, having said that, many scoops are increasingly meaningless: With the exception of ambitious enterprise work, the life expectancy of an average scoop has withered to minutes or even seconds. Moreover, few readers getting their news through social media notice or care whose tweet arrived five minutes earlier.

And when reporters are working in parallel, sometimes “first” doesn’t mean much more than one person getting called first or typing faster. There’s not a lot to crow about there -– and there will be less and less as players and teams increasingly break their own news, as Williams and Gordon did.

Reporters are hard-wired to compete, and some would object that it’s suicidal not to sweat scoops when some higher-ups keep score this way. We understand, and so we would plead that everybody take a step back and think about what’s most likely to be remembered and valued by readers.

To us, that’s not speed but depth –- explaining what a piece of news means, its historical context, why it happened, what’s now more or less likely to happen, and above all how it changes things. Being first with that kind of news? That really is worth bragging about.

ESPN gets higher grade for PSU coverage

July, 18, 2012
7/18/12
10:22
PM ET
This past fall, the Poynter Review Project was critical of ESPN’s early coverage of the scandal at Penn State, which we found slow, scattershot and tone deaf, too often giving short shrift to the terrible truth that children had been sexually abused.

So last Thursday, when former FBI director Louis Freeh and his team released a report summarizing their eight-month inquiry into Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of children and Penn State’s failures to prevent it, we hoped ESPN would do a better job. In our view, this time around, ESPN did -- with one notable exception.

On the TV side, "SportsCenter" provided thorough and substantial coverage throughout the morning and early afternoon, showing Freeh’s news conference live and then mixing new segments with archived ones. Reporter Jeremy Schaap parsed the lengthy report quickly and ably, and he was similarly sharp whether he was discussing what would come next or interviewing legal experts and lawyers. (On the ESPN.com side, Don Van Natta Jr. also did superb work -- his analysis of the Freeh report was vivid and unsparing, one of the best we read anywhere.)

Schaap’s later reports were also hard-hitting and compelling -- for example, in a Friday summation of the week’s developments, he noted that “only the most sycophantic dead-enders now would remain in [late coach Joe] Paterno’s corner.” And Schaap ended that report by examining the performance of Penn State’s Board of Trustees and noting that “the issue was never whether the young students at Penn State were put in harm’s way -- it was about those much younger and more vulnerable.”

That was one of the things we found most heartening. Whereas, in its November coverage, Sandusky’s victims too often were shoved aside by lesser concerns, ESPN rarely forgot them in its reporting last week. One of Thursday’s more searing interviews featured former Washington Redskin-turned-ESPN analyst Mark May, who was properly outraged at the callous indifference to Sandusky’s victims shown by key Penn State officials. That afternoon, Tom Rinaldi interviewed Joe Paterno’s son Jay, and his most pointed questions -- which largely followed the advice of ESPN interviewing guru John Sawatsky -- concerned what the younger Paterno had to say to the families of the victims. Rinaldi closed the interview by noting that Thursday was part of “a catalog of difficult days that are impossible to comprehend” for those families.

As for that notable exception, once again we thought analyst and Penn State alum Matt Millen was miscast. His difficulty coming to grips with the implications of the Freeh report for Paterno’s legacy and Penn State’s culture was painful to watch. And we saw it often: Millen made multiple appearances on "SportsCenter," which kept reairing one particularly awkward segment Thursday afternoon, and he also appeared on "Mike & Mike" and "Outside the Lines."

Although acknowledging that Paterno had flaws and made mistakes, Millen repeatedly tried to deflect blame to former Penn State president Graham Spanier, and he struggled to articulate his points. This clip offers a representative sample: “[Paterno] was in charge of his particular deal. But he had people above him. And I don’t care what decision you make, you’re under the org chart. The guy at the top, he pulls the string every time.”

Media critics and viewers have pilloried Millen, but we think ESPN’s producers should bear a substantial part of the blame for what went wrong. For openers, Millen is too close to the subject to offer clear-eyed analysis. The Freeh report helped show us that Penn State’s culture of reverence for its football program and for Paterno himself were gross distortions of a star system that ultimately allowed the rape of children to continue. Insider analysis that can help us understand how that happened would be helpful, but too often Millen gave us more examples of the perils of such devotion.

Moreover, it seems Millen wasn’t given ample time to digest the report’s findings before being asked to analyze them on show after show. Millen’s visit to the "Mike & Mike" studio was revealing. It came between "SportsCenter" appearances, and Millen told guest hosts Adnan Virk and Buster Olney that he was reading the Freeh report for the first time, and wound up reacting live to Virk’s recitation of the key points. The analyst was going through the “Bristol car wash,” jumping from ESPN show to show over several hours. That can be exhausting for an athlete with relatively straightforward talking points at hand, so it must have been far harder for a man struggling to come to grips with evidence that a man he had deeply admired had lied and failed to protect children from a sexual predator.

Given how close Millen is to Penn State, for him to be useful, someone at ESPN needed to do more to help him prepare -- he needed time to read the report and needed help assessing what he knows about the good and bad of building a culture around a successful college football program.

We have hopes that Millen will get such help next time -- in a prepared statement released Saturday afternoon, ESPN said that "Matt played at Penn State and was also interviewed for the Freeh Report and as a result we thought he had a unique perspective. While he expressed disappointment in his former coach and said Joe Paterno bears responsibility, he also admitted to having a hard time processing the report. That's understandable. In hindsight, having Matt in a featured role put him in a tough spot."

For an example of the valuable perspective Millen can bring, he did well in a discussion with college football reporter Joe Schad about the culture of reverence for football programs. Millen said that culture exists in all strong programs and that it is necessary to their success, arguing that what was significant was the poor decisions made in light of that.

That was a worthy argument to have, and one of a number of places where we were encouraged to see ESPN wrestle with larger questions about sports and our society.

In the early going, some of the sharpest such questions were asked online. Grantland.com's Michael Weinreb -- whose first-person take on growing up in Happy Valley was a standout of ESPN’s November coverage -- wrote eloquently about his agony over Sandusky’s victims and what he saw as the failure of the Penn State “notion that football can elevate a university rather than weigh it down.” ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach argued that the NCAA must penalize Penn State, arguing that “if a massive cover-up of a child rapist's disgusting actions isn't a major violation, I'm not sure anything else is.”

And Ian O’Connor of ESPNNewYork.com went after the culture of Penn State in a searing piece, highlighted by this quote from the attorney for one of Sandusky’s victims: "I'm a sports junkie as much as anybody, but these universities are supposed to be designed to bring young men and women into the world of business and education, and to instill good morals and ethics and virtues in people. Just being whores to athletics is so wrong."

We hope we’ll see more such unflinching takes on the culture of college athletics. But most of all, we hope ESPN will continue to talk about and speak for the children who are at the heartbreaking center of this story. We’d like to see more calls to arms like this from ESPN.com's Howard Bryant, and more explanations of the damage done by sexual abuse and how all of us can prevent it.

In one of the columns we thought was strongest, Jane McManus of espnW spoke with Chris Anderson, the executive director of MaleSurvivor, a support group for men who were abused as children. Anderson called Jay Paterno’s statement to Sandusky’s victims “the start of a conversation” and told McManus that “we're only just beginning to be at a place where we can start talking about this as a culture."

That conversation should accelerate. Child sex abuse is a searing problem for our society: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by the time they reach age 18. A sizable portion of the suffering is caused by coaches, mentors and other authority figures who lure, groom and ultimately assault their victims through sports leagues and youth programs -- people like Jerry Sandusky. That’s not an indictment of sports any more than pedophile priests are an indictment of organized religion. But sports and organized religion pose the same obstacles: the instinct for the powerful to protect themselves at the expense of the vulnerable, and for institutions to defend themselves at the expense of people.

Sports are our secular religion. Because of that, ESPN has the opportunity -- we would argue the obligation -- to expose the dark side of that religion.

After all, ESPN has done admirable work confronting the sexual abuse of children before -- on "Outside the Lines" and in ESPN the Magazine and in this ESPN.com takeout story, to cite a few examples. In the best of its Penn State coverage last week, it did so again. Now, it is our hope that the conversation will continue, with ESPN speaking loudly, passionately and angrily on behalf of those who too often are voiceless. (This Elizabeth Merrill story from Wednesday is a nice start.)

ESPN sits at the center of a national culture that worships sports. It makes money -- a lot of money -- from this universal diversion, and it has more access and insight accumulated under one umbrella than the NCAA itself. We think that adds up to both an obligation and an opportunity for ESPN to devote its abundant talent and resources to sustained and substantial work on the issue of child sexual abuse.

ESPN faces challenges in Twitter Era

July, 6, 2012
7/06/12
3:23
PM ET
Brian Windhorst remembers the day the Miami Heat cried -- and how Twitter changed his story.

Windhorst, an ESPN.com NBA writer, is a fan of Twitter, the 6-year-old service that marries the speed and brevity of text messaging with the reach of social media. Before joining ESPN.com, while covering the Cavaliers for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, he bought his own smartphone so he could start tweeting, and has built a following of more than 70,000 people.

Windhorst uses Twitter to promote his stories, of course. He also tweets 140-character bits of news, stats and observations during Heat games, and keeps tabs on what people tweet in response. That’s not just good PR: Windhorst’s followers sometimes see things he’s missed, and react in ways he didn’t expect.

Which brings us back to those tears.

In March 2011, LeBron James' miss in the last seconds of a game against the Chicago Bulls sent the Heat to their fourth straight loss. As he tweeted bits from the postgame news conference, Windhorst figured he’d construct his story around James’ miss. But when he noted that coach Erik Spoelstra had said there were players crying in the locker room, his Twitter feed lit up.

"I’d never seen such a reaction," he told the Poynter Review Project. "That told me that should be the lead."

But that’s not the only way Twitter has changed ESPN and other media companies. For reporters such as Windhorst, other aspects of the Twitter age are less pleasant, putting pressure on some to do their jobs in real time without the safeguards of the traditional news cycle. And along with new opportunities, ESPN’s executives face potentially profound disruptions to their business.

Twitter is changing how ESPN’s reporters and personalities break news and talk to fans, the relationship they have with their employer, and how ESPN manages its brand. This isn’t the stuff of some hazy digital future. Those changes are happening right now, and are threatening to outrun both ESPN’s policies and its assumptions about itself.

The Reporter’s Dilemma

Twitter has become a magnet for venture-capital money and a media phenomenon: This spring, Twitter said it had more than 140 million active users producing more than 340 million tweets a day.

According to comScore Media Metrix, unique visitors to Twitter.com via desktops and laptops rose to 41.6 million in May, up 54 percent from a year earlier. Mobile Twitter use was comparable, but mobile users spent far more time on Twitter -- 77.4 minutes a month, compared with 24.6 minutes for computer users.

To be sure, Twitter’s reach is still dwarfed by that of Facebook and the larger Web, to say nothing of TV. In February, a Pew Research Center poll found that just 15 percent of adults online use Twitter, essentially the same percentage as a year before. But Pew also found that 31 percent of Internet users ages 18-24 used Twitter, an increase from 18 percent a year earlier. The sports fans among those users are ESPN's future.

Meanwhile, fans who have embraced Twitter have seen it remake their habits. They now expect sports news and information in real time, and can spend all day reliving last night’s game or speculating on tonight’s. It is "always-on" fandom, with bits of news and chatter filling up the hours or days between each game.

Sports-talk radio started us down this path decades ago, but the Web allows fans to seek news whenever they have a few minutes of downtime, or while they should be doing something else. Twitter has made the search both efficient and addictive, creating an endless flow of new information that can always be tapped.

As a result, the news cycle has been jammed on permanent fast-forward. Once, stories were reported and written with an eye on the next day's newspaper or that night’s sports report. When news organizations went digital, the news cycle sped up, moving the goalposts to the time required to publish a story to a Web site. Twitter moved them again, to how quickly a tweet can be composed and posted. That’s created what Rob King, senior vice president for print and digital content at ESPN, calls "a second-by-second news cycle."

But that speed is straining the traditional safeguards for how professional reporters gather, assess and publish information.

"It wasn’t that long ago that when you got a piece of information you thought was a good story -- even if it was breaking news -- you could develop it more," Windhorst said. "That’s no longer the case. Now when there’s new information, the story is often reported with much less cultivation, and isn’t as well-rounded out as in the past. And I’m not talking about the 1970s. I’m talking about 2004."

Eventually, new standards and expectations will emerge for how we report and read developing stories at Twitter speed, but we’re not there yet. Until then, reporters are stuck: Readers want information faster than ever, but they assess reporters as if the rules of the old news cycle still apply.

"Now you’re writing running stories on Twitter," ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter said. "It can make you look like you’re vacillating or changing your mind, when in fact you’re reporting."

Add to that the pressure of knowing competitors may tweet news first -- and at least within media circles, the certainty that people are keeping score.

Take March’s Tim Tebow trade, Schefter said. The Denver Broncos agreed to trade the quarterback to the New York Jets, but when the deal apparently fell apart, they tried to work out a trade to the Jacksonville Jaguars instead, only to reverse course and return to the Jets. At one point, Schefter recalled, a credible person involved in the deal told him that Tebow was headed to Jacksonville. Rather than tweet that, Schefter waited to check in with other people -- and another credible source told him to hold off.

"The story had changed so much that day, I thought it was really important for me to double- and triple-check it," he said. "I could have put on Twitter that Tim Tebow was being traded to Jacksonville. Had I done that, I would have been remembered as the guy who got the Tim Tebow story wrong."

Talking Back

Twitter is a two-way street; users can ask each other questions, comment on each other’s tweets or -- as always with the Web -- just fling poorly spelled invective at a far-off target.

The volume of such mentions can be overwhelming, but some ESPN personalities brave the flood, using Twitter as a way to answer questions, offer thanks and sometimes call out haters. Some ESPNers are guarded on Twitter, while others freely banter with followers and share their personal lives as well as links to their work.

ESPN columnist and analyst Jemele Hill is a regular tweeter, sometimes topping 200 tweets a week. What does she offer her 118,000-plus followers? A mix of news, word of her upcoming TV appearances, game predictions and even career advice. Hill frequently retweets followers’ jokes, chats with them and occasionally returns fire at critics. She’ll also share pictures of herself with a toddler cousin, or beach shots from a Jamaica vacation.

Hill said she jumped into Twitter without guidelines, but noted that she has always engaged with readers. The difference is that before Twitter, such exchanges took place over email, out of public view.

In Hill’s eyes, if you’re authentic on Twitter, there’s no reason to be afraid.

"My Twitter personality is all me," she said, adding that "people interacting with you have to feel like it’s really you, and not some social-media version of you . . . The way I think about my Twitter feed is, 'Everybody’s a VIP.' "

But, she adds: "I wouldn’t tweet something I wouldn’t say on TV or in a column. If I get fired for anything at ESPN, it’s not going to be Twitter; 140 characters is not worth losing your job over."

Brands Big and Little

The tension between personal and institutional brands was a recurring theme in Poynter’s conversations with ESPN tweeters. Reporters and analysts said Twitter had helped them gain more public exposure for themselves and their work -- and understood that ESPN’s brand name was a big reason their follower counts kept climbing.

"I hate the word 'brand,' I really do," Windhorst said. "But [Twitter] helps the people who consume your news get to know you a little better, and feel an attachment to you."

But that brings up unsettled questions for ESPN: Who owns a reporter’s Twitter account? Must reporters surrender their accounts if they change employers? After all, Hill’s followers have value both to her and to ESPN. If Hill moves to another employer, are her followers hers to keep? Or should they be ESPN’s?

King said ESPN asks employees engaged in social media "to be mindful of how they use that space," but indicated ESPN doesn’t claim to own those accounts, striking individual understandings when such questions arise.

Windhorst abandoned his Plain Dealer account when he came to ESPN, as did baseball writer Adam Rubin when he moved from the New York Daily News to ESPNNewYork.com. (Both of those accounts were associated with their beats rather than their names, however.) On the other hand, Michelle Beadle changed her screen name but kept her account (and her more than half a million followers) when she moved from ESPN to NBC. Pat Forde did the same with his nearly 100,000 followers when he went to Yahoo! Sports. And Darren Rovell -– one of sports media’s most active and influential tweeters -- is returning to ESPN from CNBC, and bringing his 220,000-plus followers with him.

Legal precedent is only beginning to emerge. The most high-profile legal case concerning ownership of a Twitter account pits California writer Noah Kravitz against mobile-phone site Phonedog.com, his former employer. Eight months after the two parted ways, Phonedog sued Kravitz, calling the writer’s Twitter followers a customer list and seeking damages for the loss of that list.

Legal experts have said the reason Kravitz's Twitter account was opened is a key determining factor. But such questions may be impossible to answer: Is the purpose of Hill’s Twitter account to promote her ESPN work and grow her audience for the network, or help her to form closer connections with people who read and watch her? It’s pretty clearly both.

Moreover, many of today’s tweeters began their accounts as personal experiments, little regarded by their employers at the time. Reporters and analysts increasingly see their accounts as personal assets they’ve worked hard to build, simultaneously a clip file and a portable audience for their work. In an era of diminished job security, they will be loath to surrender so valuable an asset.

Why is this worth watching? Because it seems to us that ESPN has long been a reluctant sports-media starmaker, wary of big personalities taking attention away from the institutional brand. It’s been a tricky balancing act for the company and its personalities alike, with Chris Berman a rare veteran to walk that tightrope without falling off. In the digital age, the high-wire act is even trickier: The basic unit of digital content is an article or video, not a site or program. And when consumers feel as if they’re drowning in information noise, personality is a welcome bit of signal. Both those factors elevate personal brands, while fragmenting and diminishing institutional ones.

Consider, for example, the Twitter profile of Bill Simmons. The ESPN.com-columnist-turned-Grantland.com editor-in-chief has nearly 1.75 million followers, and neither his Twitter handle (sportsguy33) nor his Twitter home page makes any mention of his ESPN affiliation. Simmons is one of ESPN’s most valuable digital assets, yet he’s quite clearly his own brand. Where he has led, savvy reporters and analysts will want to follow.

The Value of Twitter

There’s little question Twitter has benefited ESPN’s more social-media savvy reporters and analysts. But a question that is more difficult to answer: How has Twitter benefited ESPN? What benefit does the network derive from a reporter’s rapport with his or her followers?

A better image, Hill suggested.

"There’s a perception that ESPN is a cold, ruthless factory and they’ve told their minions to never show any personality and always follow the corporate line," she said. "I think when readers get these glimpses of our personalities, they have a different perception of what happens at ESPN."

In King’s view, contributors’ Twitter presences are another way to "keep ESPN in the hearts and minds of our fans."

"Most of our on-air folks aren’t on air 24/7," he said. "The same is true for writers -- Wright Thompson doesn’t publish every day. The social space has gotten rid of all that downtime between times you’re able to connect with people you’re interested in. We want to serve fans and be connected to them, and some of the most important connections we establish are through our talent."

That said, Dave Coletti, ESPN’s vice president of digital media research and analytics, warned against focusing on social media "as if that is the full extent of conversations that occur."

Take those comments Windhorst mentioned. An article on ESPN.com might get thousands of comments, a volume Coletti said "can stack up to a lot of Twitter volume on any topic, but we haven’t been as oriented as an industry to look at it that way."

Twitter also defies rigorous audience measurements, a source of frustration for the analytically inclined Coletti. Among the things he’d like to understand better: Is there a causal link between buzz on Twitter and TV ratings? Is there a better way to measure how many people read a tweet? The vast majority of people passively consume digital media on Twitter instead of tweeting themselves or retweeting others’ words.

Absent such basic measurements, a lot of determining Twitter’s value is guesswork -- or, as Coletti put it wryly, "We have a very good understanding of what’s easy to understand."

One potentially valuable avenue for ESPN is fans’ use of Twitter as a "second screen" during games and other live events.

"Twitter is a live, real-time network and it just so happens that our content is live and real-time," said Ben Shields, ESPN’s director of social-media marketing.

Such live efforts have taken a number of forms. Reporters such as Windhorst and Rubin have become effective guides on the side during games. ESPN has used tweets to alert fans to classic sports events in the making and experimented with hashtags for sparking conversations and picking SportsCenter highlights -– efforts that get amplified, for free, when retweeted by fans. And ESPN and Twitter are now partners -- in May, the two struck a deal to produce “unique social experiences” around sporting events, with fans tweeting their best “game faces” during the NBA Finals.

All of these experiments bear watching. But both consumers and producers of tweets should keep in mind that Twitter isn’t a neutral platform, like email or text messaging or Web pages. It’s a private company, with its own goals and priorities -- which may not be the same as those of the media companies that use it. (See this take from technologist Dave Winer.)

For now, ESPN and other media companies see that bargain as a good or at least acceptable one, and it’s been full-speed ahead. But media companies may not always think that way -- and it may prove difficult or impossible to turn back.

Questions of Policy

ESPN’s social-media guidelines are available on the company’s Front Row PR site, and are fairly standard fare for media companies: Remember you’re always representing ESPN, your tweets may be simulcast on ESPN.com pages, and readers may see retweets as endorsements.

We found the biggest sticking point for reporters and analysts is also a source of considerable confusion. ESPN’s latest social-networking policy forbids breaking "sourced or proprietary news" on Twitter, saying that such information "must be vetted by the TV or Digital news desks. Once reported on an ESPN platform, that news can (and should) be distributed on Twitter and other social sites."

Some reporters we spoke to repeatedly cited that policy and expressed frustration with it, bemoaning busy times when a news item gets stuck behind other things the desk has to review, allowing competitors to tweet the news first.

But the breaking-news prohibition doesn’t seem to actually be the policy. King said once news is vetted, the goal is to publish it in whatever way gets it to the audience as quickly as possible, then "try to amplify it as quickly as possible beyond 140 characters, whether it’s radio, TV or a short version on the Web."

Furthermore, he noted, since early 2011, ESPN.com has had Twitter modules on numerous pages, a vehicle designed to ensure tweets are simultaneously published on ESPN’s Web platform.

We’re not sure where this confusion comes from, but ESPN should make it go away: Its reporters have a tough enough time confronting an accelerated news cycle without having to deal with uncertainty about which tools are available to them. King’s comments demonstrate ESPN’s goal is to decouple vetting from publication, which strikes us as the right tack. Now it needs to communicate that better.

More generally, we’d note that Twitter is remaking some consumers’ habits so quickly that policies governing it will struggle to keep up with reality -- as perhaps is the case here. Twitter users get their news in a very different way than they did a couple of years ago, and are beginning to watch sports differently as well. ESPN’s most-effective tweeters know this, and their own habits have evolved in response.

Given such rapid change, we think ESPN’s current social-media policy sends the wrong signal to its employees and undermines the value of its many worthy social-media experiments. Yes, newcomers to Twitter and other forms of social media need guidance that experienced hands don’t, but a wall of prohibitions that ends with the threat of suspension or dismissal is no way to encourage those newcomers to take their first steps.

Instead, we suggest a simpler and less daunting policy, pairing a couple of bedrock, common-sense cautions (say, that news must be vetted and ESPN editorial standards apply to tweets and other communications) with constructive suggestions for how to better connect and engage with fans, and closing with a clear signal of support for responsible social-media experimentation.

From there, we urge ESPN to tap into the wisdom of its Twitter stars and create forums for them to share internally what they’re learning, whether it’s lessons about the pitfalls of real-time reporting, tips for disarming critics, or advice on how to be entertaining in-game guides. Tomorrow’s best Twitter practices are emerging from those lessons, and regularly sharing observations and disseminating tips about what works would benefit ESPN’s Twitter newcomers and veterans alike.

Twitter is fundamentally odd -- a Tom Sawyer platform that’s convinced many influential people to paint its fence. Like Facebook, it’s gone from curiosity to essential media tool -- a news platform with such reach, depth and promise that ESPN and its rivals have had to find a place within it. The effect of such a platform is to erode some of the brand power of companies such as ESPN, diminishing it while elevating that of personal brands and the platform themselves.

That’s not what ESPN or any other media company would want. But the world has changed, and ESPN and its rivals are having to change with it. They will have to be more nimble, creative and brave, accepting that their brands are now passed around in pieces by far-flung employees, readers and even platforms, and that criticism will come from all points.

But this is not a zero-sum game: The downside of having fans, athletes and teams emerge as content creators is cacophony and conflicting information. ESPN has a ready-made role to play in such a situation, using its reporting talent to make sense of the noise and its influence to amplify valuable information. The more ESPN lets go as a brand and adapts, the more we believe its brand will retain its hard-won vitality and popularity -- and perhaps even surpass it.

ESPN, Sawatsky and the art of interviewing

May, 23, 2012
5/23/12
7:14
PM ET
Recently we sat down with ESPN interviewing guru John Sawatsky at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., to watch a number of interviews conducted by ESPN reporters and anchors. Here is the Poynter Review Project's brief critique of the three we chose, paired with Sawatsky’s more extensive notes. (We asked the interviewers if they wanted to respond; see below for Adam Schefter's thoughts.) The questions asked by the interviewers are included for reference.

(To review the basics of what Sawatsky teaches about the best ways to phrase questions and structure interviews, go here.)

1. Bubba Watson, interviewed by Tom Rinaldi, April 8.

Background: Watson had just beaten Louis Oosthuizen in a sudden-death playoff at the Masters, the highlight of which was Watson’s amazing hook shot out of the trees onto the 10th green.

Questions:
• What did you see in your head from the trees on the second playoff hole?
• What did you most overcome today?
• What did that hug contain?
• You have emotion on your face as you say that, Bubba. Why?

I thought this was good work. Rinaldi’s first question offered a revealing look into the mind of a golfer who knew both the green and his swing, and had used that knowledge to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge. I was particularly impressed when Rinaldi let an awkward moment drag on, allowing Watson’s emotions to speak for themselves. I objected only to the second question, thinking its superlative felt forced.

Sawatsky preaches that a TV interviewer’s job is to get the subject to let us into his or her mind at the critical moment, giving us an insider’s view of what we saw as outsiders. Rinaldi’s first question was perfect, according to Sawatsky: It got Watson to replay the event, describing the situation from his perspective and how he overcame the obstacle.

Sawatsky wasn’t bothered by the superlative that tripped me up. That’s a focusing element, he said -- it kept Watson from giving a general answer and was useful given how little time Rinaldi had. But Sawatsky had a different objection to that second question: Rinaldi jumped ahead prematurely to the conclusion, instead of keeping Watson in the moment. Sawatsky suggested Rinaldi might have asked, “What was the biggest barrier that you saw?” and then followed that up by asking how Watson overcame it. Sawatsky noted that in his answer, Watson talked about the barriers, but didn’t tell us a lot about overcoming them. That process -- that overcoming -- is where we get our story.

“That’s one of the problems a lot of interviewers have; they get a little impatient and they want to speed things up,” Sawatsky said. "The irony is the more you try to speed things up, the more problems you create.”

Rinaldi then moved to Watson’s hug with his mother.

“That’s a tough question,” Sawatsky said, adding that people who have been through an intense event often can’t really talk about their feelings, because they’re still in the moment. And indeed, he noted, you can see Watson pull back at first in response. But he did answer Rinaldi’s question, and began to grow emotional -- which is where the interview really succeeded.

“The expression on the human face reveals everything,” Sawatsky said. “The New York Times can’t capture that the way TV can.”

After Watson answered, Rinaldi then asked his final question, ending with that simple “Why?” That prompted an uncomfortable pause as Watson choked up in reviewing his travails.

“The beauty of that is it made him relive the moment, and that’s where he got really emotional,” Sawatsky said, praising Rinaldi for letting the silence linger.

When an exchange becomes awkward, our instincts are to jump in and smooth things over. But, Sawatsky says, “journalistically, it’s exactly the opposite" -- an interviewer’s job is to get information, not to have a conversation. By letting the emotional moment go on, even as it took up valuable TV time, Rinaldi got Watson to talk about himself and where he’d come from, leading to the interview’s most indelible moment.

2. Kim Mulkey and Brittney Griner, interviewed by Trey Wingo, Carolyn Peck and Kara Lawson, April 3.

Background: Conducted after Baylor capped an undefeated season by beating Notre Dame for the women’s basketball national championship.

Questions:
• Wingo: What does 40-0 mean to you guys?
• Wingo: What does that mean to you, Brittney?
• Lawson: Coach, what makes this team so special?
• Wingo: It seemed as if in the second half, you just decided, "No matter what they throw at me, I’m going to go to the hole and I’m going to score."
• Peck: What is it that [point guard Odyssey Sims] did for you throughout this tournament to allow you to be national champions?
• Wingo: How were they able to manage the weight of last year’s lost championship and turn it into a title this year?
• Wingo: Makenzie [Robertson], your daughter, came out and wore the braids tonight. Did you know that was coming?

I thought this interview was bland. Griner offered very little, and Mulkey’s most interesting comments came late, when she talked about changing Sims’ habits and not being able to protect her players from how good they were.

Sawatsky heard questions that were a bit off the mark, but thought the bigger problem was that multiple people were interviewing two people at once -- an issue compounded by the fact that one was a coach and the other a player.

Sawatsky noted that Wingo’s first question focused on the undefeated season, not the title. But Mulkey was more focused on the title -- and so the coach spent most of her first answer knocking down the presumption of his question.

Wingo then asked Griner the same question, and the star player simply offered a blander version of her coach’s answer. To Sawatsky, that’s another symptom of the interview’s structure.

“The coach influences the player,” he said, adding that “if the coach hadn’t been there, you would almost certainly have gotten a completely different answer.”

Lawson’s question was derailed because she appended her own opinion, one of Sawatsky’s deadly sins. But he also noted that where Wingo focused on the game, Lawson asked about the season, changing the focus.

“Different interviewers generally have different goals and will step on each other,” he said, “even when trying to work together.”

Wingo then asked Griner a question that wasn’t actually a question, but Sawatsky’s larger objection was that “the interviewer is picking his moment and deciding to make it about that -- he wasn’t in the game.” Presented with Wingo’s view of the game, Griner wasn’t free to address what she saw as the turning point.

Next came Peck, who asked about the tournament -- changing the focus yet again. Sawatsky said the question was well-constructed, but thought focusing on the tournament instead of the game was a misstep. Few journalists, he noted, had the chance to immediately interview Baylor’s coach and star about the just-concluded title game, while the experience was still fresh. Given that opportunity, he argued, it’s best to focus on the game.

3. Roger Goodell, interviewed by Adam Schefter, March 21

Background: Schefter was trying to get the NFL commissioner to address questions about the severity of the penalties handed down to the New Orleans Saints for their bounty program targeting opposing players.

Questions:
• Why did you see the need to hand down the most severe penalties in NFL history?
• How much of a factor in his ultimate punishment was [New Orleans coach Sean Payton’s] lying? And was the cover-up worse than the crime?
• When you gave the message to Saints owner Tom Benson, what was his response to you?
• What was the one piece of evidence that made you say, “I have to take the action that I’m about to take?”
• What made the Saints’ case different from what’s gone on around the league and what other people say is routine?
• Why not announce the punishment for the players along with the punishment for the rest of the Saints organization?
• So do you have any idea when we might hear from you on the players?
• What do you say to the fans of New Orleans about this?
• Roger, what do you say to the people who say your penalties here in this case are too harsh? Have you thought about the fact that you’re literally taking $7.5 million away from the table from Sean Payton? How confident are you that we will never [again] see anything like what you have said the Saints are guilty of doing?

I thought this was a solid interview. For me, a minor discordant note was that Schefter’s intensity and rapid-fire questions -- some of them a bit loaded -- made the interview come across as almost prosecutorial.

Sawatsky focused on something that hadn’t registered with me. On a micro level, he said, Schefter’s questions were good, but the sequence of seemingly disparate questions prevented the interview from being more comprehensive.

Sawatsky notes that Schefter had six and a half minutes with Goodell, a long TV interview.

“If you have that kind of time, you’re better off asking questions in their natural sequence,” he said.

For instance, Schefter begins with a “why” question, which Sawatsky said is a good inquiry, but not the ideal tactic for starting an interview.

“You’re asking for an explanation, and you can’t give an explanation without something to explain,” he said.

Goodell might have revealed more, Sawatsky said, if the reporter had led him through the investigation as it unfolded: What did you expect? What did you encounter? So how did you react to that?

In Sawatsky’s view, Schefter’s well-honed instincts to break news limited the yield in the interview.

Schefter, Sawatsky said, “asked fundamentally good questions for the most part, but limited his quest to the domain of hard information when he had an opportunity to go deeper. In fairness to Adam, he wanted to cover as much territory as possible, but I don’t think he understood the trade-off.”

Sawatsky divides information into “hard” and “soft.” Facts are hard information, while soft information captures people’s thoughts, reactions, emotions, values, intentions, inclinations, level of commitment and degree of determination. Hard information tends to be stated, while soft information is most effective when it’s shown.

To maximize the value of an interview, Sawatsky says, you need both, but soft information “conveys a lot more meaning.” Interviews heavy on hard information can lack richness and depth, which is fine if the goal is to break news, but a missed opportunity if the goal is to explain. Many of the most memorable interviews fall into that category; rather than breaking news, they give us a deeper understanding of people involved in that news.

Soft information, Sawatsky says, can reveal “more than the actual act and give a truer picture of the real state of affairs. Is Roger Goodell personally ticked off, or merely acting in a prudent manner in his capacity as the NFL’s CEO, or is it something in between? That’s a revealing insight that does not emerge from hard information.”

In an email response to this critique, Schefter called Sawatsky's points "spot on," but notes that the opportunity for the interview came on an already frantic day -- mere minutes separated word of the Saints' penalties and the news that Tim Tebow had been traded to the Jets. Schefter was told he could have five minutes with Goodell and rushed to New York City.

Amid such harried circumstances, Schefter said, "if I had gotten Goodell to go into the background explanations and soft information, I don't know that I would have had time to get him to respond to the significant news questions after what were historic suspensions on one of the biggest offseason NFL stories in a long time. ... I would have loved to have had time to try Sawatsky's approach, and I intend to do that in a future interview, when time is not an obstacle."

Next time you watch an ESPN interview, listen to the questions asked and the order in which they’re asked.

Are they “closed” yes/no questions, or “open” ones that encourage the subject to explore something? Has the interviewer weighed down the question with his or her own values? Is the question so convoluted that it confuses the subject, or offers an escape route? Does the order of the questions make the subject reveal more, or less?

As our critique demonstrates, if you watch interviews with Sawatsky’s lessons in mind, you’ll see how he’s helped ESPN with the art of interview -- and you’ll detect some shortcomings he’s still working to address.

John Sawatsky is highly questionable

May, 1, 2012
5/01/12
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For eight years, John Sawatsky has made ESPN his laboratory for deciphering the science of interviewing. A former investigative reporter, he has worked with the network's reporters, producers, anchors and other talent to put his philosophy into practice and make it part of ESPN's culture.

"There are no rules in the interview," he said during a recent visit to his office at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. "But there is a set of principles, and they are universal and they are timeless. If you follow them, you get good results. If you violate them, you pay a price."

Sports is a natural arena for interviews: The best athletes are simultaneously amazing physical specimens and canny strategists, a fascinating combination even without our apparently limitless appetite for sports news and information. Yet athletes can be tough interview subjects, often well-schooled in keeping the media at bay with carefully rehearsed blandness.

A good interviewer must penetrate the fog of sports clichés, getting athletes and coaches to reflect on what they do and how they do it, and be able to hold his or her ground when a story demands more than sports knowledge.

ESPN has long prided itself for its reporting and game coverage. Its history is filled with memorable interview moments, for better (Jeremy Schaap and Bobby Fischer, Brian Kenny and Floyd Mayweather Jr.) and sometimes for worse (Jim Rome and Jim Everett, or Schaap having to fend off an angry Bob Knight). Any week of ESPN programming will include extended interviews as well as hasty exchanges with players rushing on or off the field.

Sawatsky's job is to ensure ESPN's reporters, producers, editors and talent get the most out of interviews, whether extended sit-downs or hurried stand-ups. Sawatsky has several core principles for effective interviewing, a methodology he divides into "micro" techniques, aimed at asking better questions, and "macro" techniques, aimed at getting better stories.

On the micro level, Sawatsky preaches that questions should be open, neutral and lean. Open questions typically ask what, how or why, and yield more than closed questions, which invite yes or no answers. Neutral questions are free of values added by the reporter; Sawatsky sees such values, whether positive or negative, as distracting baggage. And questions should be lean: brief in length, and conceptually simple. (For more about Sawatsky and his techniques, see profiles here and here.)

Combine closed questions and the baggage of values and you get questions that may sound tough, but are easily evaded, returning no information for readers or viewers. (The late Mike Wallace was a favorite target of Sawatsky's on this front.) And even friendly interviews can fail, Sawatsky warns, because reporters treat them as common discourse instead of hunts for information.

"The interview is not a conversation," Sawatsky says, adding that the goal "is to get, not to give. What's the goal of conversation? It's to exchange -- it's as much about giving as it is about getting. I tell people, 'When you're giving, you should be giving to our audience.' "

Sawatsky won renown as one of Canada's best investigative reporters, which led to teaching journalism at Carleton University. In the late 1980s, he enlisted students to help research a biography of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, using standardized questions he had developed. The results opened Sawatsky's eyes: Some questions worked and some didn't, regardless of who was asking them.

The experience taught Sawatsky to see interviewing as a science, one with principles that could be discovered through experimentation and with techniques that could be taught. He soon developed a new career, becoming the interview coach at CBC and conducting workshops across the world in which he would teach his methodology. (The Poynter Institute has been an occasional host for such workshops.)

But Sawatsky was frustrated: He wanted "to change the culture of the journalism interview," but couldn't do that parachuting into organizations for brief visits. That led him to ESPN, which hired him full-time in 2004. With ESPN, Sawatsky thought, he would have senior management on his side. And by sticking around, he would able to reinforce his lessons over time.

At ESPN, Sawatsky found challenges and opportunities, especially when teaching his methods to numerous former athletes now acting as analysts. Most, he found, thought like athletes, not journalists. As interviewers, Sawatsky says, ex-jocks are inclined "to go soft and not to challenge things, particularly if they're very recent athletes. They still have friends in the game." Moreover, he says, "they think about promoting the sport. I have to keep telling them, 'What's the mission statement of ESPN? To serve sports fans.' "

At the same time, there are upsides to teaching former players -- knowledge of their sports, the confidence natural to gifted athletes, and the fact that they are more coachable. "These guys have been coached all their lives," Sawatsky said. "If they weren't coachable, they wouldn't have gotten to where they are athletically."

Sawatsky still remembers seeing raw footage of former Dallas Cowboys wideout and ESPN analyst Michael Irvin conducting an interview. Before asking each question, Irvin would talk to himself, repeating "open, neutral, lean."

"Michael did some really good interviews," Sawatsky says, sounding both amused and appreciative.

Sawatsky taught his principles to all of ESPN's anchors, producers and talent, and now holds workshops periodically, addressing new hires and those who want or need to improve their interviewing skills. A key teaching tool is reviewing tapes of interviews. Sawatsky asks the interviewer to tell him the goal of the interview, after which they go through the tape. Sawatsky writes down the questions, allowing the interviewer to assess their effectiveness.

"I let the results do the talking," Sawatsky says. Asked how the culture of interviewing has changed at ESPN, Sawatsky says that while there's still work to be done, "the mantra has changed" in terms of how to ask questions -- the "micro" part of his teachings.

"People are really conscious on the micro -- they don't always follow it, but they're aware of it, and it's become a guiding mantra for them," he says. " 'Open, neutral, lean' -- all the reporters in the company know that, and most of them I think sincerely try to follow it. "

The easiest place to see his teachings in action, Sawatsky says, is during sideline interviews. He's written a manual for ESPN that offers techniques for such encounters. He advises ESPN's sideline reporters to stick to a single topic, narrow that focus to a single aspect of the game at hand, and make the question about something extremely tangible. (Sawatsky praises Holly Rowe as a particularly good sideline reporter.)

Sawatsky says he hasn't been as successful at teaching "macro" lessons -- how to structure interviews as more than just a series of individual questions.

To address that, he has begun teaching a new workshop at ESPN, one he calls "story magic." In it, he examines what structural elements make stories work, using commercials as a teaching tool. Commercials, he says, can tell wonderful stories while having to ruthlessly economize on time. Why, for instance, was Mean Joe Greene's Coke ad magical, while Joe Namath's famous pantyhose ad wasn't?

Whether the principles are micro or macro, Sawatsky's laboratory is still conducting experiments.

"The methodology isn't finished, and it will never be finished," Sawatsky says. "The basic principles -- the micro and macro principles -- are pretty much in place. But I'm looking for new ways to illustrate them. And of course I'm still learning about stuff, too."

The Poynter Review Project will critique some ESPN interviews along with Sawatsky, and will write about them in upcoming posts.

A look inside ESPN's ad-approval process

April, 16, 2012
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How does ESPN assess advertisements for its networks? And why does it sometimes reject them? The answers sometimes depend not just on the ads themselves, but on where those ads send viewers and what they find there.

That issue came up late last month in connection with an ad from the Rise Up and Register Campaign, a voter-registration effort aimed at NASCAR fans. In the ad, second-year racer Blake Koch (pronounced Cook) notes that more than half of racing fans didn’t vote in the last election, and admits he was one of them.

"It’s time for all of us -- the entire NASCAR nation -– to rise up and make our voices heard in this election," he says.

ESPN rejected Rise Up and Register’s ad, deciding it violated its policy (communicated to ad agencies) of not taking ads that include political or issue-oriented advocacy or ads from religious institutions. Last month, Koch -– who often shares his testimony at churches -- appeared on "Fox and Friends" to discuss the decision and whether he was being targeted for his religious beliefs.

"I didn’t think that my faith in Christ would have an impact on whether or not a sponsor could air a commercial or not," he told Fox.

Ed Durso, ESPN’s executive vice president for administration, told the Poynter Review Project that the network’s issue wasn’t with the ad itself, but with the Web sites associated with it. Those sites "had messages that are clearly, in my opinion, in the area of advocacy," Durso said, adding that "we decided based on those criteria that we wouldn’t accept it."

ESPN guidelines don’t outlaw related Web sites, and Durso said the network evaluates every proposal "on its own merits." But he adds that ESPN has maintained "a consistent policy that links to advocacy sites violate our guidelines."

As of this writing, Rise Up and Register’s site, which says its mission is to register more than a million new voters this year, includes links to Koch’s site, to a form used by people who’d like Koch to speak at churches, and to Be My Vote, a site aimed at registering pro-life voters as part of efforts to stop abortion.

Durso said every ad submitted to ESPN is reviewed against the network’s guidelines. If questions arise, they’re discussed with the ad-sales representatives responsible for that client, as well as others at ESPN who might have an interest. For example, Durso says, questions about an NBA ad might lead to consultations with ESPN’s programming arm.

If there’s sufficient uncertainty about an ad, it lands on Durso’s desk -– which is what happened with the Rise Up and Register spot. Durso said he consulted with ad sales and ESPN’s corporate outreach department, reviewed the ad and Rise Up’s site and decided "in relatively short order" that it didn’t meet ESPN’s standards.

"It didn’t appear to me that voter registration was the primary objective of the websites and what they’re all about," Durso said.

Rise Up and Register’s case "is not as unique as you might think," Durso said, adding that the spot arrived not long after ESPN turned down an environmental-advocacy ad, again because of an associated site.

"We turn down a lot of those," Durso said, adding that "people aren’t turning to ESPN for political debate. There are plenty of other places to get that if they want it."

Durso said many of the ad agencies ESPN with which works are aware of its guidelines, but noted that with new ad campaigns constantly emerging, advertisers, agencies and account managers often change. Moreover, he said, "cause-related efforts are a growing component [of advertising], so it is not surprising that more of these types of issues are emerging."

As for Koch’s religious beliefs, Durso said they weren’t relevant to ESPN’s decision.

"We’re not trying to make judgments about anything or anyone," he said. "In fact, we try to avoid that."

The fate of Rise Up’s ad raises an interesting point for ESPN and other networks in the digital age: How much weight should be given to material associated with an ad campaign, and how direct must that association be to violate standards? Durso said there’s "no precise answer" to such questions; he and others at ESPN look at what’s presented and make a judgment based on that review.

We agree that it’s not an easy question to answer. By its very nature, the Web can take you from one place to somewhere very different in dizzyingly short order. And some goals are worthy regardless of the political bent of those encouraging them -– a category in which we’d certainly include increased voter registration and engagement.

But that is what makes the Rise Up and Register campaign so interesting. The Koch spot is a straightforward voter-registration message aimed at a fan base whose political bent is by no means uniform, and Rise Up and Register’s site seems relatively neutral politically. But that’s not true of BeMyVote; its goal is clearly political advocacy.

Our point of view is that material on sites associated with an ad shouldn’t be subjected to an all-or-nothing standard, but assessed the same way a new visitor might see them. What conclusion would that visitor draw from the material presented, the links featured, and their prominence?

We don’t think links helping people arrange a church visit by Koch amount to a violation of ESPN’s prohibition on messages from religious institutions, but BeMyVote is clearly an advocacy site, and one given a prominent position on Rise Up and Register’s site. One can agree or disagree with ESPN’s standards prohibiting advocacy messages, but we think its decision to reject Right to Register’s ad was a proper interpretation of those standards.

Durso said sponsors frequently come back to ESPN to discuss what has to be changed to win approval. Rise Up and Register hasn’t contacted ESPN since the network’s decision, he said, but added that if the group’s ad agency wanted to discuss the campaign, ESPN would share its concerns.

"We’re open to working with people," Durso said, adding that "we’re not a closed shop."

ESPN can't let Knight play by own rules

March, 27, 2012
3/27/12
11:04
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Legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight has long done things his way, and his five years as an ESPN analyst have been no different. Knight prefers to call himself a basketball consultant rather than a member of the media, and wears sweaters like those from his coaching days, rather than the standard analyst wardrobe of coat and tie.

But Knight went too far recently in covering the early rounds of the NCAA men’s tournament. Asked about teams vulnerable to upsets, Knight went out of his way to avoid saying “Kentucky,” referring to the No. 1 seed in the South Region as only “that team from the SEC.”

That wasn’t new behavior: In February, Knight was asked on the “Mike & Mike in the Morning” radio show about the country’s top teams, and left Kentucky out of the discussion -- despite the Wildcats being ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and coaches’ polls. Nor, in a discussion of the country’s best players, did he mention Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. (ESPN PR says such accounts have been overstated, since Knight's focus in the segment was on Syracuse. Listen here.)

What’s going on here? It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to figure it out. Back in 2009, Knight said he couldn’t understand why Kentucky’s John Calipari was still coaching since he’d “put two schools on probation in Massachusetts and Memphis,” a reference to Final Four appearances vacated by the NCAA for infractions that happened on Calipari’s watch. (In neither case was Calipari implicated.) Then, last spring, in criticizing the policy allowing players to go to the NBA after a single season, Knight said that Kentucky had “started five players in the NCAA tournament games that had not been to class that semester.” That wasn’t true, and Knight soon apologized.

Given this history of bad blood, readers and critics pounced on Knight’s circumlocutions, and rightly so.

“His failure to refer to the college basketball teams of Kentucky and Indiana by name is, quite frankly, childish and immature behavior that is reprehensible,” one reader wrote to the Poynter Review Project. Opined another: “That is pathetic, and it is just as pathetic that ESPN brass allow this farce to continue.” A third wrote that “I would like to know if ESPN still feels the positives of his employment continue to outweigh the potential damage to the college basketball arm of the ESPN brand.”

Some at ESPN had their say, too.

Take this instantly popular tweet from ESPN columnist Rick Reilly: “What happens to Bob Knight if he says the word ‘Kentucky’? Does his lower jaw fall off? Snakes spring from his hair? My God, does he smile?”

With a media furor in full swing, something interesting happened: Last Wednesday, Knight appeared on the “Mike & Mike” show, discussed Friday’s upcoming Kentucky and Indiana rematch, and mentioned both teams by name multiple times. (Kentucky would win, 102-90.)

What changed? In answer to our inquiries last week, Mark Gross, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, e-mailed us this comment: “Our production staff has had conversations with Coach Knight on the topic. On this past Wednesday’s appearance on ESPN’s 'Mike & Mike,’ he talked extensively about Kentucky, a week after he specifically discussed Kentucky on his March 14 'Mike & Mike' appearance. Our focus now is on our upcoming coverage of the NCAA tournament and Final Four.”

Knight, indeed, did talk about Kentucky on the March 14 show, mentioning the school by name once in discussing how the Wildcats’ loss in the SEC title game might affect their tournament play. But his comments about Kentucky were remarkable mostly for how generic they were -- contrast that limp analysis with his discussion of Syracuse and Fab Melo earlier in the segment.

Knight is far from the first coach to treat longtime rivals as if they don’t exist or aren’t fit to be named, and his well-known irascibility is part of his charm. (At least to some.) The problem is that Knight isn’t appearing on ESPN as a coach, but as an analyst. For a coach to be petulant and flaunt grudges is part of the theater of sports; for an analyst to do so is unprofessional behavior.

On the one hand, the Poynter Review Project is reluctant to make a federal case out of this. We doubt it is news to any college hoops fan that Knight isn’t a fan of Calipari’s, and ESPN brought Knight on not just for his basketball acumen but also for his larger-than-life personality. Nor do we think it’s a disaster for ESPN to let Knight march to the beat of his own drummer at times (who cares if the man wears sweaters on the air?).

But while 902 wins, 11 Big Ten Conference titles, three NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal might let you keep your top button undone, it doesn’t allow you to be derelict in your duties as an analyst. And this gets to a question that has bedeviled ESPN before: Do its star analysts get to play by different rules than the rest of ESPN’s talent?

ESPN has taken steps to address that perception, but too often they’ve been half-measures. Take last year’s two-tiered system for endorsement deals, discussed by Poynter here. Non-analysts are limited in which endorsement deals they can sign, with an eye on preventing apparent conflicts of interests; analysts (and some reporters) can strike such deals, checked only by ESPN’s public disclosure of the deals it deems relevant.

ESPN sees that system as a necessary compromise given the reality of the sports world’s big salaries and big egos, and we have a fair amount of sympathy for their dilemma. But it means ESPN has to be very careful about policing that system -- and making clear what is and is not acceptable.

That's particularly true given the overlap in roles between ESPN's star analysts and its journalists. Analysts don't necessarily have to be rigorously objective -- as ESPN's journalists do -- but they do have to be fair, and professional in how they treat their subjects. Sports bona fides don't preclude ESPN's celebrity analysts from doing excellent work for viewers and readers; many of them do. But if that work is unfair or unprofessional, it besmirches the work of ESPN journalists who have to live by different rules.

In Knight’s case, ESPN moved relatively quickly to intercede and, one hopes, to prevent further damage. But it shouldn’t have had to do so in the first place. When you become an analyst, you’re no longer a coach. Your accumulated wisdom and body of work comes with you, to inform that analysis. Biases and bad blood, on the other hand, have to be left behind.

To cover a story, or be part of it?

March, 27, 2012
3/27/12
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ESPN.com‘s Jemele Hill did a very nice, tight column this week explaining how the lives of professional athletes are connected to the life and death of Trayvon Martin.

Contrast that to ESPN’s bouncing back and forth on whether its talent can post a photo of a “hoodie” via social media in solidarity with the family of the Florida teenager who was shot and killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch captain. That incident occurred as Martin was walking back to his father’s house in Sanford, Fla., to watch the tipoff of the NBA All-Star Game after a run to a convenience store for ice tea and candy.

As a journalism organization, ESPN should do more work like Hill’s and less like the self-expression of several others -- including ESPN anchors Trey Wingo and Mike Hill, NFL reporter Michael Smith and Grantland writer Jonathan Abrams -- who donned hoodies in their Twitter avatars.

If you want to make a difference, explain the story, don’t become part of it.

This is a basic tenet of journalism that is becoming lost in this day of social media – also known as slacktivism. It feels good to join a popular movement by slapping a bumper sticker on your car or wearing your heart on your sleeve. But with a little work, and a little self-restraint, journalists can do so much more.

Using LeBron James’ and other athletes’ show of solidarity as a jumping-off point, Hill explains why Trayvon’s story matters to the sporting world. She offers a litany of examples that document how professional athletes, some of the richest, most powerful people in our society, are often victims of racial profiling.

She practiced journalism. And it’s so much more effective than pulling up the hood on your sweatshirt and taking a picture.

Rob King, senior vice president of editorial for ESPN digital and print media, was involved in the decision over the weekend to allow an exception to the company’s social media policy and allow employees to post the hoodie image on social networks. There was a robust conversation about the topic among ESPN executives before a decision was made, King told us.

"We asked, 'What are they expressing?' " King said. "Visually, they are expressing their notions of tolerance around the case. We feel this is a unique expression."

In the abstract, that is certainly true. But in the specific instance of this case, the hoodie is a visual expression of support for the parents of Trayvon and their petition for law enforcement to bring charges against the man who killed their son. King said he believes that most of the ESPN folks using the hoodie image were expressing broader support for the value of tolerance.

Even if that's the case, there's no way for the audience to know which sentiment was being expressed by the hoodie, or the intent behind it. And we don't know how the facts in this specific story will continue to change. Hill's story, meanwhile, will remain salient.

Journalists and other ESPN employees sit on a perch of influence. So they have an enormous reach. They should take that role seriously. When you become part of the story, you lose your ability to tell an independent story. Although it seems sympathetic, and even morally superior, to offer up a political commentary, leave that to the athletes – many, including members of the Miami Heat, showed support for Martin -- and, instead, find a way to help the audience better understand the story. (ESPN NBA columnist Michael Wallace wrote about the Heat sending a message of support for Martin last weekend).

ESPN’s policy that prohibits its commentators, anchors, reporters and analysts from making personal political statements is a good one because it preserves the individual's ability to do powerful work that others cannot do. Although we applaud the willingness to wrestle with the social media policy -- it should be a living, breathing document -- we were disheartened to see ESPN make an exception to the strongly rooted journalism value of independence.

And it’s not because we want to silence ESPN staffers. Instead, we'd like to see them cover the story, as it relates to sports. Hill found a way to do it. Certainly others can, as well.

Why did Grantland edit Cuban podcast?

March, 20, 2012
3/20/12
12:33
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Earlier this month, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made an anti-gay joke at the expense of Grantland’s Bill Simmons while the two were onstage in front of a large audience at a well-known sports conference -- a remark excised from a podcast recorded during the event.

The Poynter Review Project was curious about why Grantland edited out Cuban’s remark. After looking into it, we’re persuaded that Grantland wasn’t trying to protect an NBA owner by making a sophomoric joke disappear. Nor do we think the edit violated ESPN’s standards. Cuban’s remark -- for which he apologized -- was unfortunate, and left ESPN facing criticism no matter what it did.

Cuban was on stage to close out the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, a high-profile event that attracts members of sports front offices and bright students wishing to join their ranks. (ESPN is one of the conference’s sponsors.) He and Simmons spent an hour talking about all things NBA, from advanced stats and the league’s recent labor troubles to how teams are run and how they're marketed to fans.

Simmons has interviewed Cuban before at the Sloan conference, and the event always draws a packed house, eager to see two big personalities whose tongues can be gleefully barbed.

“I’ve known Mark for five or six years and this is either the third or fourth year we've done something at Sloan together,” Simmons wrote via e-mail. “He loves busting balls and I obviously do as well. We like each other. Those panels are pretty tame so we're always trying to liven them up -- otherwise people are going to zone out and start looking at their texts or Twitter.”

Things took an unfortunate turn, however, when Simmons said he liked the Kiss Cam in arenas. Cuban responded by saying that Simmons and his “boyfriend” are frequently featured on the big screen. He then hastily added, “Or his girlfriend, this is gender-independent commentary.” Simmons ignored that, pushing ahead to another question about the Mavericks’ arena.

“I can't defend the remark -- it just felt like it came out of 1987 or something,” Simmons said. “He was trying to be funny and bust my chops and ended up saying something dumb -- we both knew immediately that he screwed up. He tried to backtrack and I tried to move things into a different direction, because what else was I going to do? He was definitely more subdued for the next few minutes; I actually had trouble keeping the interview entertaining because he became a little gun-shy after that.”

Simmons said that, after the interview, he and David Jacoby, a Grantland writer/editor who was producing the B.S. Report podcast, discussed what Cuban had said.

“There was never a question it was coming out,” Simmons said. “It took us about 0.02 seconds to decide.”

Asked why, Simmons said, “From our standpoint, had we left that joke in the podcast, we would have been condoning it. … We certainly weren't trying to hide the joke or protect Cuban -- there were 2,000 people there, including a few of my bosses, and 50 to 75 bloggers and writers.”

Bleeped profanity aside, Simmons said that was the only edit to the Cuban podcast he recalled. But he added that such edits aren’t unknown with the B.S. Report, and that the decisions about what to cut are his.

“We have whomever is producing the podcast write down any possible notes for either (A) a joke or remark that may have crossed the line, or (B) a section of the pod that's just boring or redundant that we can cut out to make it flow better,” Simmons said. “At the same time, I'm making mental notes for possible edits. We don't give guests the option of asking after the fact to remove a quote or comment -- we make those determinations ourselves.”

Such edits, he said, happen “very rarely and it's almost always to remove a joke that's a little too sophomoric. We've even joked about it a couple of times with our repeat guests -- especially with Cousin Sal [Iacono], who loves pushing the envelope.”

Every ESPN podcast that isn’t live is checked for content before it’s made available for streaming or downloading. Readers of the oral history book “Those Guys Have All the Fun” may remember Simmons’ complaints about remarks being cut from his podcasts. Since then, a disclaimer has been added to the B. S. Report noting that it “occasionally touches on mature subjects,” an addition meant to give Simmons more free rein, and responsibility for the podcasts has passed to the growing team at Grantland.

We think Simmons did a good job moving things along at Sloan. Confronting Cuban about a foolish misstep might have sparked headlines, but it would have marked the end of a more-interesting discussion about sports business, which was what the audience was there for. (And while it’s not directly our concern, Cuban’s subsequent apology struck us as sincere and forthright.)

Questions about why Grantland edited the remark are reasonable (see here and here), but ESPN would also have been pilloried if it had left Cuban’s remark in.

Simmons and Jacoby made the kind of decision they’d made before as producers. The difference was that this time the exchange happened before an audience, which knew a guest had gone over the line. That was unfortunate, but we don’t see it as a clear-cut reason to handle the situation differently.

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