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Addressing some ethical questions at the “Worldwide Leader”

LeBron James’ The Decision. Sideline reporter Erin Andrews’ endorsement deal with Reebok. Allegations of foot-dragging in coverage of a lawsuit accusing star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of sexual assault.

The list of ethical landmines sports media behemoth ESPN has stepped on are legion, with new entries popping up with regularity. Hardened cynics have suggested mixing the terms “ethics” and “ESPN” might be a bit of an oxymoron – given how many line-crossing scandals the folks in Bristol, Conn. negotiate every year.

So it makes a certain kind of sense that, when ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer’s term wound up, ESPN turned to one of the country’s most-respected journalism institutions to fill the gap: the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (full disclosure: the newspaper where I work, the St. Petersburg Times, is actually owned by the non-profit institute).

But the arrangement – in which three staffers at the school for journalists will produce monthly columns on ESPN’s ethical issues, starting this month – raises an uncomfortable question.

Will ESPN transform itself ethically with Poynter’s guidance? Or will the Worldwide Leader cloak itself in the school’s credibility while largely ignoring its advice?

John A. Walsh, executive vice president and executive editor at ESPN, almost bristles at the question. “We want to be held accountable,” Walsh said, noting that executives began discussions with Poynter at the end of 2010, before problems with Andrews’ shoe deal hit the news. “We want to be transparent. In this ever-expanding age, we think we can improve ourselves. And if an in-house critic helps us do that, that’s great.”

At Poynter, president Karen Brown Dunlap acknowledged there’s a little bit of faith-taking going on here. Rejecting the notion that the institute will be ESPN’s ombudsman – none of their staff will be based in Bristol, and they won’t be an audience advocate in the traditional way — Dunlap presented their 18-month Review Project as a way to start an important conversation about journalism values around and inside the sports media giant.

“I keep thinking about the 35-year history of Poynter; we have regularly dealt with companies that have run off the track ethically…(and) I think there is a strong sense they want to be an organization that lives up to what they profess,” she said.

“This is a sports organization that is deciding on its values,” added Dunlap, noting that Poynter will also deliver additional pieces as news events warrant, using social media to extend the conversation. “If we put out there the values that should be followed – constant examples of how people practice values-based journalism – and they choose not to follow that, it’s their decision. But I believe they want to do the right thing.”

One place to start, is a simple question. Who exactly is a journalist at ESPN?

Walsh said ESPN is working on that issue right now, standardizing job descriptions and pulling together its ethical policies for various corners of its business into one form (he also noted, people who report from the field like Erin Andrews are considered journalists, with the attendant ethical requirements).

“ESPN has grown into what it is by making decisions as the company goes along,” he said, noting it hadn’t pulled all its ethical guidelines into one place until February. “I’m sure in the early days…when somebody got an endorsement deal, management cheered, because here’s some income they can get that we’re not able to offer them. But over the years, there has been a real conscientious effort to have a conscience about what we’re doing.”

As technology and media platforms evolve, journalism is morphing from a craft to an act. So how to deal with a sports media company that has entertainment in the first word of its name, employing both journalists and media personalities who occasionally commit acts of journalism?

And is it fair to ask someone who only occasionally commits journalism to follow the tighter ethical rules journalists assume?

Now the true scope of Poynter’s challenge emerges. And some critics say the first order of business should be examining a long-standing gripe; that the channel provides more coverage and hype to games and sports teams it is aligned with as a programmer.

Do sports the Worldwide Leader doesn’t broadcast so much – say, professional hockey – get less attention from the journalists at ESPN?

It’s a trend David Zurawik, the TV and media critic for the Baltimore Sun, says he’s noticed as a professional observer and a fan.

“I think it’s almost part of the culture at ESPN that they access that kind of cross promotion and don’t think it’s an incursion into the product,” said Zurawik, citing James’ The Decision – an hour-long special last year on the NBA star’s announcement that he would move from playing for Cleveland to Miami – as a worst case example. Even ESPN ombudsman Ohlmeyer criticized that project, highlighting how the company allowed James to choose a non-ESPN broadcaster as his interviewer, while his camp sold advertising in the program for charity.

“How does ESPN Radio deal with Monday Night Football – do they pull their punches in talking about their games?” the critic asked. “I think, for a place like ESPN, it operates on rules that are almost closer to professional sports teams.”

Will Leitch, founding editor of the sports gossip blog Deadspin and a contributing editor for New York magazine, said ESPN’s ethical reputation is so compromised that when it pulled a story on LeBron James partying in Las Vegas because the writer didn’t identify himself as a journalist while reporting the story – a major ethical no-no – many still saw it as a move to protect a basketball star rather than support ethics.

“It’s telling that ESPN actually did something ethical and no one believed them,” he said. “It’s one thing for the Washington Post to have an ombudsman…but you don’t see the E! entertainment channel with one.”

Leitch said ESPN employs many journalists who feel frustrated by the company’s ethical breaches and bad reputation. He also criticized a central issue for ESPN; it often tries to cover sports as an independent entity without acknowledging its own role as a major player in the sports world.

If ESPN personalities advocate for a playoff system in college football, is it because the company already broadcasts so many bowl games? And how will ESPN handle news coverage of the University of Texas after the September debut of its new, 24-hour channel featuring Longhorn sports, developed with the school in a deal valued at $300 million over 20 years?

“Their footprint affects everything,” Leitch said. “A lot of ESPN’s stars are bigger brands than the athletes they cover. It started out more as a journalism organization . . . (but) now they’re in the entertainment business.”

But Walsh disagreed with many criticisms leveled against ESPN, defending The Decision by noting that journalist Michael Wilbon interviewed James during the special, calling the notion the company might co-opt Poynter’s credibility “preposterous.”

“We’ve had three ombudsmen, we felt some of the matter was repetitious, why not try something different?” he said. “ESPN always operates on the premise we can be better.”

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed,  at  blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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