Monday, April 23, 2012

The Poynter Review Project and Journalistic Standards at ESPN

Last month in a stinging column in the Sports Business Daily, John Carvalho, an associate professor of journalism at Auburn University, took issue with ESPN and its relationship with the Poynter Institute, an independent, educational organization in St. Petersburg, Florida. Carvalho's critique focuses on the lack of prominence of the relationship on the ESPN web site, the apparent lack of impact that the relationship is having, and the potential for a conflict of interest resulting from ESPN funding of the Poynter Institute.

Carvalho wrote:
My concern is the impact on the broader conflicts of interest involving ESPN’s double life as an outlet for objective news information and a producer of overly hyped programming. In these cases — for example, McBride’s appraisal of ESPN’s schizophrenic role in reporting and promoting college football realignment — the columns seem like window dressing. ESPN lets McBride and Fry reflect and ponder, but ultimately, they are left to their own ivory tower, worth only public relations points for ESPN, with no real change. . . after the 18-month term is up, ESPN will remain at its level of ethics, and Poynter, from its lofty position, will end up with sore arms and improved finances.
Today in the Sports Business Daily, ESPN responds to Carvalho's column:
The column offers no evidence of unethical behavior. It does assert we have a “conflict-of-interest filled daily business” and operate under a “double life as an outlet for objective news information and a producer of overly hyped programming.” While no specifics are provided, we assume the implication is that our business relationships conflict with our news reporting.

A few facts: First, it is not uncommon for news organizations to be part of larger companies that have relationships with entities upon which they report. CBS News, for instance, reported about controversy on the show “Two and a Half Men” and CBS Sports reported on the Masters not allowing women members. Like ESPN, CBS has a licensing agreement with the Masters.

These organizations manage this potential or perceived conflict by establishing clear rules and practices. We have a news division that manages our journalism. We have a programming department that acquires rights from leagues and conferences and manages our relationships. Neither interferes with the work of the other. The news group does not dictate our agreements. The programming department does not dictate news coverage. The guest column does not substantiate any ESPN coverage being influenced by business interests.
On this debate, ESPN comes out ahead -- they are correct that Carvalho does not offer any evidence of unethical behavior.

The financial relationship between ESPN and Poynter is visibly disclosed, though the exact terms are not. The potential for an actual or perceived conflict of interest always exists when there is a financial relationship between organizations. It would be fair to ask Poynter and ESPN to explain how they are addressing this possible concern. But to allege ethical problems goes too far.

After reading through the work done through the ESPN Poynter Review Project, I am impressed. ESPN has dramatically improved upon its previous ombudsman role and should be applauded for its efforts to improve sports journalism.


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