In mid-March, I published a column in SportsBusiness Journal in which I challenged the notion of whether ESPN’s relationship with the Poynter Institute, a respected journalism think tank, is in fact changing the ethical climate there.
I was shocked when, six weeks later, a representative of the Worldwide Leader replied in a column of his own. I figured the column had gone the way of my lectures — in one ear and out the other (though to be fair, my lectures might not even make it into one ear).
I was even more shocked when USA Today referenced the debate and when Dino Costa at Sirius XM Mad Dog Radio wanted to talk to me about it on his show. Dino was actually the one who informed me, on live radio, of the USA Today piece. I had no idea.
Here it is, the end of the week, and I am back to my previous ivory tower obscurity. But I was thinking of a statement in the ESPN column: “No sports media organization puts more resources toward transparency.”
He also complained that I offered no specifics. He is right. I should have mentioned the Bruce Feldman case or conference realignment, well-hashed though they may be. Conference realignment would have been particularly strong, especially after the column compared ESPN’s reporting to CBS reporting on staff discord on “Two and a Half Men.” Given ESPN’s role in conference realignment, in fact, it would resemble more CBS having a seat on the FCC, influencing network-related decisions and then reporting it without acknowledging the conflicts.
But let’s look at a more recent example. The reporting on the new BCS playoff system. Can we assume that ESPN has an interest in possibly broadcasting these games? Thus, would it be in ESPN’s financial interest to add three additional games to the playoffs? Of course.
But in reporting about the negotiations, did Mark Schlabach, Joe Schad or anyone at ESPN acknowledge this conflict? Typically, when a media organization reports on a story in which they have a potential conflict of interest, they are open about it. It might seem a bit excessive to viewers and/or readers, but the point is to be transparent and to show your readers that you care about it.
They are in good company. FOXSports.com also ignored the conflict in their reporting on the negotiations, even though they can be expected to seek to benefit from the new system.
That’s what ethics is all about. The extra mile. A good form of TMI. Going out of your way to point something out because you want readers to know that you care enough about it.
You don’t just say, as the column did, programming doesn’t affect news and news doesn’t affect programming. A logical follow-up line would have been “end of story, so stop worrying.” You acknowledge the potential conflicts of interest because you know your audience recognizes them too.
Sometimes the most valuable resource a media organization can put forward in promoting transparency is the words to point out any such conflicts ahead of their readers. In this specific case, and in others.