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More transparency needed from broadcasters to ensure journalistic integrity

The fallout ESPN is enduring right now over “shoegate” – promotional contracts between its College Game Day broadcasters and athletic shoe companies that, in some cases, the channel didn’t know about – comes down to a seemingly simple question.

Are sports TV’s sideline reporters, announcers and play-by-play analysts considered journalists or not?

Answering that question may not be easy as it sounds. Sports broadcasters have a tradition of appearing in commercials, including former players-turned-game analysts such as Howie Long, who appeared in a promotional bit featuring a NASA robot at a GM car dealership during the Super Bowl pre-game show.

But traditional TV journalists, especially those at the big networks, have not been allowed to appear as celebrity shills for non-charitable projects for many years. You won’t see Diane Sawyer hefting a drink for Coca Cola or Katie Couric telling viewers to try Weight Watchers.

So why should sideline reporter/personality Erin Andrews be allowed to heft a Reebok shoe on her bicep in a partnership touted by the company – particularly after noting on air that rival Nike provided shoes for a Rose Bowl team that was having problems with slipping during the game?

Sports broadcasters always seem to struggle with these issues, whether it’s questions about ESPN working too closely with LeBron James on The Decision special or NBC failing to adequately grill Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Johnson on the tremendous cost to the public for his billion-dollar football stadium.

Watching Fox present a perfunctory mention of the sexual assault allegations against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl broadcast, you had the sense the network stuck it into their daylong celebration just so critics couldn’t accuse them of ignoring it completely.

That’s what happens when your core effort – broadcasting a game – is centered on a gigantic conflict of interest.

On the one hand, broadcasters like NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC and ESPN are spending millions to present sporting events intended to make millions more in profit for their companies. On the other, they are attempting to cover those events using staffers sometimes defined as journalists, who should be reporting fearlessly and transparently on events regardless of the impact.

These stakes will only rise with the audience for sports broadcasts. When you’re drawing record audiences for football games, do you really want to stop the party for serious looks at player safety, off-the-field scandals or questionable business deals?

Though sports broadcasters often want the credibility and cachet of journalists, they have a tough time living up to  ethical standards. And their employers seem resigned to living with the hypocrisy, explaining away moments when conflicts become a problem while avoiding lasting change.

In a broadcast culture where big stars may have grown used to accepting such promotional partnerships to boost their salaries, it may be tough for employers to treat their reporters and broadcasters like journalists. It will likely grow tougher when said stars demand pay raises to make up for the money they’re losing by saying no to Nike or GM.

But to preserve their credibility, they should start now – telling broadcasters it’s time to phase out such deals, especially for people engaged in reporting work, like delivering details from the sidelines or serving as a game’s primary announcer. (three cheers to Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, who has called for Disney CEO Bob Iger to intervene in an endorsement situation Johnston called “corrupt.”)

Failing that, staffers and employers should be fully transparent about every endorsement each on-air personality currently has, creating a web page prominently listing all the arrangements.

This setup — first suggested to me by New York University professor Jay Rosen for news broadcasters – allows critics, fellow journalists and viewers to judge for themselves whether conflicts of interest are a problem.

If these arrangements are as above board as ESPN representatives have suggested, surely disclosing them all on an easy-to-find spot in their website would prove no problem. And broadcasters who somehow forget to keep the company appraised of all their deals can earn a pink slip if a deal surfaces which isn’t catalogued there.

All this seems necessary because Andrews proved in her brief comment about the Rose Bowl that it is easy for broadcasters to say something which can look like a conflict of interest.

So let’s see broadcasters lay all their cards on the table, making sure this issue is top of mind for everyone.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for that announcement from Bristol, Conn.

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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