Commentary

Straight to the point

Poynter Review Project aims to help fans understand ESPN, and vice versa

Originally Published: March 23, 2011
By Kelly McBride | Poynter Review Project

Since Poynter and ESPN announced that we would partner to create a review project as the next evolution of the ESPN ombudsman, the general reaction from you, the fans, has been: What is The Poynter Institute anyway? Is it a school? A think tank? Just what is it?

We get that question a lot. It's hard to explain The Poynter Institute. We are a school, but we don't grant degrees. We are not a think tank; in fact, we stand at the nexus of reflection and practice, a unique position in the field of journalism. The easiest way to describe Poynter is to say that we are a non-profit dedicated to making journalism better. We do that through our website, the courses we teach (online and in person) for both working and aspiring journalists, and the leadership we offer to the world of journalism. We've been around 35 years, just a bit longer than ESPN. We own the St. Petersburg Times newspaper. And, like ESPN, we've grown substantially in size and stature since our humble beginnings.

Since 2005, ESPN has contracted with an independent ombudsman to critique its work, advocate for the fans ESPN aspires to serve and hold the network to its own high standards. Many of the world's largest newsrooms do the same, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR. So, why not just stick with that model? How is this Poynter arrangement new and improved?

Collectively, Poynter possesses expertise in print, online and broadcast journalism. Within those broad categories we have experience and proficiency in reporting, writing and editing, broadcasting, online and mobile reporting, investigative journalism, leadership, visual journalism, design, business models and entrepreneurship. And we're not exactly slouches when it comes to sports journalism. Going back to 1980, we've hosted numerous seminars and conferences on the topic. Among the sports journalists who have taught or learned at Poynter are Dave Kindred, Dan Jenkins, Sally Jenkins, Christine Brennan, Pat Forde, Garry Howard, and many, many more. John Sawatsky, who runs training programs for ESPN, has close attachments to Poynter. Our dean, Stephen Buckley, began his journalism career as a sportswriter. And we've had numerous ESPN reporters, writers and managers attend our training sessions.

So how's this going to work?

To begin, my partner Regina McCombs and I will write a monthly column, as well as a couple of shorter installments as developments warrant. My background is newspaper reporting and my primary current expertise is ethics, as well as reporting and writing. Regina was a television field producer and photographer, then a multimedia producer. She currently teaches digital and mobile journalism.

Together, and with support from the rest of the Institute, we'll look for the pressure points, big and small. They shouldn't be hard to find. Since its inception, ESPN has grown faster than possibly any media organization in modern history. Layer onto that the revolution that lowered the barriers between audience and journalist. Then top it off with the rebuilding of the economic structures that pay the bills in journalism. What you get is a company in constant transition. It's no surprise that there are conflicts of interest and competing loyalties.

Our job is to dig into those. Sometimes we'll look at a meta-issue, like the ethical choices ESPN makes as it develops new audiences or teams up with a major league or conference for programming rights. And sometimes we'll pick apart a very specific decision in a specific story. We will be looking at all of ESPN's work: the television and radio broadcasts, the websites, the magazine, and the many mobile offerings. As a result, some of our columns might look a little different than those of previous ESPN ombudsmen. Our goal is to publish one longer piece every month and a handful of shorter, more timely installments when appropriate.

Our primary purpose is to help fans understand ESPN's values and to help ESPN understand fans' expectations. We hope to bring transparency to this very large company by peeling back the layers of decisions that culminate in both success and failure, and all that falls in between.

We might, for example, take a quick look at the buzz over something such as President Barack Obama's plug of a donation site to aid Japan earthquake and tsunami victims during his NCAA bracket selection for ESPN. And what we might say about something like this, for instance:

After the first two rounds of NCAA tournament play, President Barack Obama's bracket is doing quite well, beating ESPN celebrities such as Dick Vitale and Bill Simmons. That should lead even more people to the USAID.gov donation site for Japan relief, which Obama plugged before he made his picks on camera with ESPN.com's Andy Katz.

Even before ESPN filmed what has become its annual installment of Barack-etology, Obama's critics chimed in, suggesting that the leader of the free world had better things to do, given the civil unrest throughout Middle East and North Africa, and the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in Japan.

Katz and the rest of ESPN's crew were not surprised when the president's staffers informed them that Obama planned first to plug the relief site. Katz said he never felt pressured by the White House to leave the president's remarks intact as a condition of the interview.

"There were no conditions," he said. "It was never said, never, that if you don't do this, we won't do this. Never."

And that's a good thing, because ESPN doesn't let sources, even the president, dictate content, said Vince Doria, the network's vice president and director of news.

"Whenever anybody makes something conditional, we'll let you do this if you guarantee that you'll run this, we never make those deals," Doria said. "When [Obama] did mention it, they had already conceded that we had the right to do whatever we want with the material."

Katz planned to say something about the earthquake anyway -- survivors were still being rescued in Japan -- then figure out how to segue from that into the bracket discussion. So when he learned that Obama was thinking the same thing, he wanted to make sure the White House staff understood ESPN's independence, saying "We just said we can't promise how this will be edited, but this seems like the right thing to do."

Sources, guests and partners will always try to influence ESPN content. Everyone wants to plug their favorite charity, Doria said. Although it seems innocuous, most of the time ESPN cuts the material because it isn't central to the story.

Those are tough choices to make. Aid to Japan had nothing to do with the president's NCAA picks. But Katz went into the story thinking it was relevant, so the charity plug made the cut. Ultimately the ESPN staff directly involved in the story had a lot of independence.

There are four common ways in which a charity gets mentioned on ESPN. The most obvious is when an athlete or team takes on a cause and that's the story. There are lots of these stories on ESPN, such as when the MLBPA gave $1 million to Haiti relief. Then there are stories about an individual who happens to be the subject of a charitable organization, such as the story on paralyzed BMXer Ricky Chang's determination to ride again, which included a link for donations to help with his medical expenses. ESPN also does a few stories on its own charitable causes. Rarest are the instances in which the charitable cause has nothing to do with the story, until the producers draw the connection. That's pretty much where the Obama story fell.

In all of these cases, the ESPN staff directly involved with the story makes the first, and often the last, line of decisions. In the end, ESPN editors and producers working with Obama's bracket packaged the video into multiple versions. Sometimes the world disasters were reduced to a mention in the introduction to the package. Most of the time the pitch was left in.

Did that make sense? Sure, given the fact that Katz had independently decided going into the story that he would mention the worldwide turmoil.

Will that make it harder for the next producer to say no to a source who wants to plug a charity? That's going to be a constant battle no matter what, one that the front-line professionals at ESPN are accustomed to tackling.

Katz said he hopes to keep up the annual presidential bracket selections because it makes for entertaining coverage. He was the one who originally approached Obama with the idea, before he was elected president. "If the next president is into hoops, regardless of party ... I would want to continue the new tradition," Katz wrote in an email. "But once again, it may only work if that president has an interest."

So there, that's how this is going to work. Got something to share? Please let us know. This column is meant to give you, the fans, a way to participate in the ongoing improvement of ESPN. We'll be picking through the mailbag ...

Regina McCombs contributed to this column