Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Poynter Review [Print without images]

Tuesday, March 27, 2012
To cover a story, or be part of it?

By Kelly McBride
Poynter Review Project

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.