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Monday, May 16, 2011
ESPN Insider chose speed over sensitivity

By Regina McCombs and Kelly McBride
Poynter Review Project

At 8:13 a.m. on May 12, incoming Alabama football player Aaron Douglas was found dead on the balcony of a home in Fernandina Beach, Florida, after an evening of partying with friends. The cause of death has not yet been released.

Just after 11 a.m. that same morning, ESPN Insider’s Rumor Central published a short item titled "Shocker at LT" with news of the death, and speculation on the implications for the Crimson Tide’s lineup.

By its nature, a rumor column needs to be fast and attention-getting. This was both, and neither in a good way.

Many in the social space commented on the Rumor Central post. One of the earliest tweets, from @FO_College, summed up much of the reaction that followed:
"Possible starter found dead in Jacksonville, opening door for five-star signee Cyrus Kouandjio." Are you serious, @CFBRumorCentral????

Within 30 minutes, ESPN Insider editors reviewed and removed the post.

There’s no point debating whether ESPN should be speculating on who will benefit from a man’s death, especially within hours of the discovery of his body. It should not. The more important question is: How does something like this make it on the Insider site?

First, some background on Rumor Central. It’s a paid service, part of the ESPN Insider package. The role of RC is to take rumors swirling around various sports, especially those reported by ESPN and other media outlets, and either move them forward or debunk them. Quickly. For an in-depth look at how Rumor Central works, read past ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer’s column on the topic.

Insider writers, mostly freelancers, craft the RC items and post them directly to the site. The posted item is then sent to other Insider editors, who review the items and make any requisite changes, “usually within 5 minutes,” according to Chris Sprow, general editor for ESPN The Magazine & ESPN Insider, who is responsible for the day-to-day oversight of Rumor Central.

In the case of the Douglas post, the copy editor who read it Thursday morning was uncomfortable with the tone and brought it to the attention of Sprow, who then quickly pulled it off the site. The post was "live" for roughly 20 minutes.

As it became clear that the story was spreading via social media, people at ESPN discussed a response.

Later in the afternoon, an apology appeared on the site:
"We apologize to everyone, especially the family, friends, teammates and fans of Aaron Douglas, for the tone of a post that appeared on Rumor Central today related to Aaron's tragic death. For a brief moment, we lost our sense of what matters most, and recognized and addressed our insensitivity within 20 minutes."

Around that same time, two apologies were sent via Twitter. Rob King (@rfking), vice president of editorial for ESPN Digital & Print Media, tweeted:
Apologies for the Rumor Central post related to Aaron Douglas' tragic death. It did not meet ESPN editorial standards and was removed asap.

Sprow (@Sprow_ESPN) also posted the following:
One of my roles at ESPN is to oversee Rumor Central. My deepest apologies for an earlier post I considered insensitive. It was regrettable.

Despite the fact that posts go live before they’ve been edited, "you can count on one hand the problems that we’ve had," Robbyn Footlick, executive editor and executive producer for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN Insider, said during a phone interview.

This one, she argued, was the equivalent of accidentally swearing on air.

"The good news is that what we can do, and what we do do, is apologize for it and move on," she said.

We disagree. Apologizing and moving on isn’t enough. Fans who wrote into the mailbag were outraged.

David Cox, of Murphysboro, Ill., wrote, "I was absolutely sickened. To conclude that the most important thing about this death opens up a roster spot is completely unthinkable to me."

Tyler Williams, of Emporia, Kan., echoed Cox’s emotion: "While I understand that Douglas' reported death will have an impact on the 2011 Crimson Tide, it seems incredibly callous to just dismiss his death this easily."

Albert Lin, a freelance writer who posted the item, did what Rumor Central is charged with doing: spin breaking news of the day forward, using knowledgeable sources and observers to speculate on possible player implications. There’s nothing wrong with that, in general. But breezing past a young man’s death to discuss its roster implications suggests that a sense of perspective got lost in a rush to publish.

"In the end," Gary Belsky, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine, said, "someone made a mistake in judgment reflecting the company's incredibly earnest desire to please fans, in this case Insiders, who subscribe to a product whose staffers are trained to an almost Pavlovian level to take every bit of sports-related news that happens and spin it forward, as quickly as possible, with angles meant to satisfy an A-list fan's interests and passions."

The next day, Sprow followed up with an email to the RC team:
"You guys are consistently ahead of the news cycle on ideas, logical speculation and where things may lead on the field. But this is basic: every one of you has reporting experience, and you’ve all been in this long enough to know that while personnel issues are why people read, speculating on them in the case of a tragedy will only draw scorn. Let the hurricane pass before you consider the real estate opportunities."

Why put the responsibility for this on Lin? With Rumor Central, ESPN has created a product meant to push boundaries. The writers are paid to be fast, focused and prolific. But if it takes five to 10 minutes for an editor to read a post that has been published, why not do that before it goes live? If an editor had reviewed Lin’s entry first, it may never have seen the light of day.

"Our focus coming out of this mistake is the same as it would be for any organization operating at Internet speed," Belsky said. "We want to learn the right lessons. From senior management down we’re reviewing our posting and editing processes to build in the smartest safeguards, ones that will retain our ultra-responsive spirit while ensuring the level of excellence in curation and judgment that we strive for every day."

That's good news. Perhaps Rumor Central should consider a two-tiered system, where most items go live without editing, but sensitive posts receive extra attention before they hit the site.

Apologies only go so far. Revising the system that allowed the mistake to happen would reassure fans that ESPN values both speed and sensitivity.