A New Commitment to Transparency at ESPN

Network to codify its standards and practices

In October the National Republican Congressional Committee sent an e-mail to supporters that was signed by former Notre Dame football coach and current ESPN contributor Lou Holtz.

“My friend, YOU, are the NRCC’s 12th man and they urgently need your help to win every U.S. House seat possible, fire Nancy Pelosi, and elect a Republican to the Speaker’s chair this November,” Holtz told recipients.

Holtz has long identified himself as a Republican and supporter of Republican causes, but his overt political involvement with the e-mail campaign was not acceptable to ESPN.

“We have discussed this with him and he will not be involved in any future similar efforts,” ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys told SportsNewser at the time.

Like any organization that publishes news in print and on the web, or broadcasts on TV and the radio, ESPN has over the years developed polices regarding ethics, standards and principles. When issues like the Holtz one arise, they find themselves having to either update existing policies, create new ones, or enforce something that’s already written down.

ESPN’s editorial policies and standards have been scattered throughout different part of the organization. But yesterday I was given an advance briefing about the company’s first-ever Editorial Guidelines for Standards & Practices, a hard copy binder and digital document that will be available to all editorial and camera-facing employees starting next week. ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer mentioned the Guidelines in a column today, and John Walsh, ESPN executive vice president and executive editor of ESPN.com, appeared on ESPN Radio today at 10:45 a.m. in order to answer questions and respond to any editorial concerns from ESPN listeners.

The latter is part of what Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president and executive editor of online content for ESPN Digital Media, said is part of a new commitment to transparency at ESPN. It will see top editorial brass participate in regular radio appearances and online chats in order to respond to fan questions and concerns about coverage.

“There were times when stories have come up where it wasn’t so much that I felt like there was an internal agenda to withhold information … as much as I feel we could have better served ourselves and our audience by being more forthright,” Stiegman said. “There are stories that have come up in the last year, whether it was Ben Roethlisburger story, where some people were critical of us by saying we didn’t act fast enough, or The Decision, where people were critical of us because we didn’t disclose the nature of the ground rules for the LeBron James interview.”

The Editorial Guidelines include a new section dedicated to transparency, in addition to thirteen other chapters: Commentary, General Reporting & Editing, Sourcing, Attribution, Civil Suits, Criminal Activity, Media Criticism, Social Networking, Outside Activity, Political Advocacy, Presidential Elections, Advertising, and Corrections.

“We aggregated all of our policies to make sure we are as contemporary in our thinking as possible,” Stiegman told me. “That included learning from the best and looking at the best examples of editorial guidelines elsewhere, and focusing on the issues that crop up in a multi-platform multimedia real-time news organization that we have here at ESPN.”

One specific challenge for ESPN relates to the Holtz situation. The company’s content is created by a combination of journalists, producers, researchers, analysts, on air hosts, and former professional athletes, coaches, and executives. Boxing writer Dan Rafael is likely well versed in traditional journalism values and standards. Lou Holtz, not so much.

Stiegman said the goal with the Guidelines is to create a master set of codes that would be accessible to all editorial employees, and be easily searchable and constantly updated. He emphasized this is a “living document” that’s “aspirational” in nature.

“It’s something that is going to be in evolution and be reviewed and revised on a regular basis,” he said. “We don’t want this to be the Ten Commandments that are placed in stone and be something we can’t adjust as the world adjusts.”

Yes, a living document is good. It will never be finished and must always be adapted to meet new realities and challenges. And, yes, making it easily available to all relevant employees is essential. Too many news organizations leave their guidelines to gather dust in a drawer. Standards and guidelines are empty words if they aren’t integrated into the internal culture and processes of an organization.

External concerns, however, are just as important. That’s acknowledged in the section about transparency, and it’s also the source of my initial concern after learning about the document. I’m referring to the fact that ESPN won’t be making the Guidelines public. Simply put, it’s hard to judge if an organization is living up to its standards if you don’t know what the standards are.

My other reason to advocate for public release is that doing so will send a strong message to other news and information organizations. ESPN is not a hard news organization, and yet it has the best cross-platform corrections policy of any I’ve seen. It also has an ombudsman—and now it has a comprehensive and up-to-date set of standards and guidelines. ESPN is ahead of many so-called serious news organizations. I’d also like to see it meet the standard of disclosure set by Reuters and put its Guidelines online.

“There’s nothing in [the guidelines] that any of us would be concerned about having as a public element, but at the same time I want people to be able to treat it within context,” Stiegman told me. “You don’t want to just dump 200 pages worth of policy into the open arena—we want this to be reference guide for our internal editorial decision making.”

Stiegman also said that individual policies will make their way into the public realm. When specific issues crop up, ESPN will address them in the radio and online forums noted above, and that could include sharing relevant passages from the Guidelines.

“We’re happy to reference—and I’m sure we will—certain elements or passages or policies as warranted in public discussions about how we came to our decisions,” Stiegman said. “But this is an internal document. The transparency will flow through a free and open discussion with our fans when the topics arise.”

Aside from that issue, I also couldn’t help wondering if Keyshawn Johnson or, say, Mike Ditka will take the time to go through the relevant sections of the Guidelines when the document is released internally next week. How will they get Mike Ditka to go through the document?

“Without referencing Mike specifically, in general we’ll have versions of the [document] condensed so they focus on issues we think are pertinent to talent,” Stiegman said. “Also, each producer and editor who is responsible for working with the talent and contributors will be responsible for walking them through the key points of the Guidelines.”

Meanwhile, the fan in me is picturing Johnson’s reaction to the Guidelines: “C’Mon man!”

Correction of the Week

“In yesterday’s Independent, Ian Herbert attributed quotes to the ITV football analyst Andy Townsend which suggested that he had made sexist comments on Twitter as part of the Andy Gray/Richard Keys story.

“Those quotes originated from a spoof Twitter account. We apologise for any embarrassment caused to Mr Townsend, who has no connection to the @AndyDTownsend account.” - The Independent (U.K.)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , , ,