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ESPN’s ombudsman vacancy emphasizes importance of independent voice in journalism

Back in November, when I asked ESPN.com’s Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Patrick Stiegman about how the sports media giant would choose its next ombudsman, he was definite about two things:

First, the ombudsman position – an independent entity which reviews ESPN’s journalism in columns posted prominently on their website — was important.

And they were going to fill the job relatively soon.

“We don’t want to take a year off or even a long stretch off in terms of, you know, continuing what we think is a great service to our fans,” said Stiegman, who added he has edited and overseen every ombudsman column published in the last six years. “Certainly by early 2013 we’d like to have someone in place.”

But four months later, as the start of 2013 winds down, the question arises: Why doesn’t ESPN have a new ombudsman, yet?

Josh Krulewitz, a spokesman for the company, would only acknowledge that the search for a new ombudsman was ongoing and they had no details to share.

The last ombudsman was something of an experiment. A small roster of writers from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies – the school for journalists which owns my full-time employer, the Tampa Bay Times newspaper – provided regular columns analyzing ESPN’s ethics and journalistic achievements, an effort which ended in November.

ESPN first hired an ombudsman in 2005, creating an independent voice with a contract for a fixed amount of time with the freedom to respond to public questions and feedback or investigate their own ideas.

The media giant’s first three ombudsmen (and a woman) were individuals with extensive credits in television and print media: ex-ABC and NBC sports and entertainment programmer Don Ohlmeyer, former Washington Post sports editor George Solomon and Le Anne Schreiber, a former sports editor at the New York Times.

With the 18-month Poynter Review Project, ESPN moved in a different direction; hiring an institution to keep an eye on their work, led by the school’s top instructor on journalism ethics, Kelly McBride.

“I think their attempt to identify their values ebbs and flows constantly,” said McBride back in November. “There are days when they are really sharp and there are days where there are so many things going on and the organization is hard…They’re just so freaking huge that it’s almost impossible now to talk about values across the entire organization.”

McBride laid out that size (with colleague Jason Fry) in a final column for the review project in November, noting the company has more than 1,000 staff content contributors, many working on 24-hour platforms. ESPN.com alone estimated it posts 800 items each day, McBride and Fry wrote in a farewell piece titled “ESPN’s size, power demand scrutiny.”

“As you go from product to product…it’s not the same consistent set of values because they all serve different communities,” McBride told me. “I think that’s okay, as long as those smaller group values don’t undermine the larger values of ESPN…The biggest challenge for them when it comes to ethics is identifying on a really large scale what their core values are.”

The Review Project took some strong stands, dinging ESPN for taking too long to gear up in covering the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal at Penn State; the unfocused editing of its premiere online journalism outlet Grantland; their disconnect when it comes to reporting on ESPN’s own impact on sports, such as the realignment of conferences in the NCAA.

But few columns had greater impact than McBride’s piece on Bruce Feldman, one of ESPN’s top college football reporters, who wrote an “as-told-to” autobiography with former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach.

The autobiography was published after Leach was fired by the university and he sued ESPN over its coverage, leading to a huge public controversy and the mistaken impression Feldman was suspended.

McBride eventually concluded – among many other ideas noted in a long and complex column about a complicated subject – ESPN should not allow its journalists to author “as-told-to” books with figures from the beats they cover.

“My sense was, before that moment in time, the consensus was tilting toward allowing as-told-to books (at ESPN), and after that moment in time, the consensus tilted away,” she said. “And now they don’t allow journalists at ESPN to do as-told-to books with people on their beat.”

Stiegman agreed, sort of. “I wouldn’t say it was the sole driver, but (Poynter’s column) definitely ramped up the internal discussion as to whether or not this was a policy we needed to address,” he said, noting that the company also updated social media policies, conducted a review of attribution and sourcing policies and updated their editorial standards and practices manual in connection with feedback from the Poynter project.

 

McBride noted ESPN’s focus on the fans’ needs could sometimes be a blind spot, adding that the project also looked at how the insulated culture at its Bristol, Conn. headquarters might be connected to journalism decisions.

“The conversation we had repeatedly was whether something was about the internal process at ESPN or whether it was about the journalism,” she added. “I think, philosophically, many people at ESPN believe that the quirks and the culture in Bristol are isolated from the journalism. And one of the things I believe, having looked at dozens and dozens of journalism organizations over the decade I’ve been here at Poynter, is that the internal culture always affects your journalism.”

As ESPN tries to ride the fine line between entertainment and journalism, Stiegman praised the Poynter project and the ombudsman role in general for sharpening the ethical compass of an always-evolving media outlet.

“We want our journalism to be scrutinized,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any better example of that than a self-imposed choice to have an independent voice write about us on our pages for the last six years.”

Given the lack of similar positions at other media outlets – the Washington Post recently announced plans to change its independent ombudsman into a “reader representative” supervised by the newspaper to answer the public’s questions – it’s good to see Stiegman make such a powerful case for transparency.

None of ESPN’s new competitors, including NBC Sports Network, the CBS Sports Network or the newly-announced Fox Sports 1 channel, seem to have similar jobs, either. (Poynter’s predecessor, Ohlmeyer, took about six months to take over after Schreiber’s last column, so a delay in finding an ombudsman isn’t unheard of.)

Here’s hoping the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” continues to lead in the most important way, hiring a new ombudsman quickly to keep its ethical compass evolving on the right track.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

Check out Deggans’ latest book, Race-Baiter, How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, and you can also visit his website for more information.

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