When ESPN came along, no one was happier than me, a “sports nut” all my life. It was definitely a “pinch me” moment. “A network just for sports? Are you kidding me?” What’s happened in the more than quarter-century since then has been surreal.
I’ve watched the network become so much more than game broadcasts: It’s been the leading edge of the cultural and business phenomenon of sports all day, every day. It’s spawned multiple networks, and made stars and celebrities out of broadcasters. It’s encouraged a young generation of sports junkies to “major” in sports at journalism schools. It’s created its own events such as the ESPY Awards, and put its influence to great good by getting behind mega-fundraisers such as the “Jimmy V” extravaganza to raise money for cancer. The “E” in ESPN has gotten bigger and bigger; there is just so much of the “S” out there that you can broadcast, after all, even with a much-expanded and mangled definition of what qualifies as sport. ESPN also does much with all-day reruns and regular refreshers of the news; programming such as “Outside The Lines;” its “30 for 30″ series; stories such as the one it broke about Syracuse University’s own assistant basketball coach, Bernie Fine; and discussions it’s kept alive and explored about important issues, such as in-depth examination of sports concussions.
This week, ESPN’s own creation, the X Games, wrapped up. It’s an event that represents how the network has smartly built its estimated $8 billion brand. The gravity-defying X circus is scary to the earth-bound and thrilling to those who aspire to defy gravity. We have come a long way since the iconic opening on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Every time the skier swept off the edge of the ramp, we gasped, no matter how often we saw it.
These evermore extreme and death-defying X acts have certainly attracted lots of viewers and no doubt made the network millions. And there is nothing wrong with making money. It’s essential to survival, and as those of us “newspaper people” well know, our business has not made nearly enough of it, or made it nearly the priority it needed to be. But, unfortunately, the “death defying” descriptor is no longer so apt for the X Games, with the death of Caleb Moore, 25, whose snowmobile flipped and landed on him. He walked away from the crash, but was dead within the week. He suffered a bruised heart and brain damage. His brother broke his pelvis while competing minutes later.
It raises with me a question I mull every now and then about the so-called “worldwide leader,” and how good it does — or doesn’t do — at policing itself and its own coverage. This weekend, I am wondering who, if anyone at the network, will even raise the question of how these games have evolved, their clear dangers (and related thrills), and the network’s complicity in them. Will any ESPN journalist takes this one on, aggressively and independently? How does the news, entertainment, thrill-providing mashup that is ESPN see that this happens? How, indeed, does it insist on it? For now, ESPN has promised a “thorough review,” but no details of how it will do it. It will be interesting to see what that is, and if we are ever told how it is conducted, by whom, and what is concluded. One can easily imagine the death of an auto racer on the track or a football player on the field, and the thorough inquiry that would quickly follow in Bristol, Conn., ESPN headquarters.
I do not suggest I am a student of ESPN ethics. Indeed, I am not. Some things do give me pause, though. The Poynter Review Project, an initiative where that well-respected group reviewed and commented on some of ESPN’s practices, tackled some meaty issues. Kudos goes to both parties, the reviewed and reviewer. But ESPN sounds quite comfortable, even smug, in characterizations of its operation as a “walking conflict of interest.” At some point, indeed, acknowledgment should lead to action — or at least honest reflection — in the face of such conflicts.
Look at something as comparatively benign as ESPN’s “Corrections” and you might be surprised. Is this it? Three in January — one of which was an apology for leaving the final score on the screen for the women’s replay of the Australian Open Women’s final. (“We regret the impact on fans,” ESPN wrote.) One in December? None in November?
Good luck to you, ESPN reader, in finding the Poynter Project and the Corrections on the website. (They are the tiniest of links, left side, very bottom of the homepage.)
ESPN tells us on its website that it’s looking for an ombudsman — it has had one before — the independent employee who will be watching over its journalism and practices. It will be a near-impossible job at such a behemoth as ESPN; we all recognize that, and we empathize. But just as important, if not more important, will be the profile this new watchdog is afforded.
Frankly, there is so much I love about sports and what the ESPN network does that I will not change my viewing and listening habits based on what happens. I celebrated getting Sirius Radio in my new car, but it’s ESPN for me, every driving moment. I’d search for alternate sports channels while driving, but I’d hate to miss my favorite show, “The Herd.” At home, I sometimes wonder if I need any other buttons on my remote.
Here’s hoping that whoever is chosen for this important job will do work that is quite prominently displayed and promoted. ESPN, after all, is an expert at that — when it wants to be.
It’s the perfect time to post about Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame football player.
You probably think I’m kidding. Aren’t most of us too sick of it to even think about it? We were duped by a once-in-a-lifetime story; let’s just learn our lesson and move on. But it’s not once in a lifetime, really. Every month there are “mini Mantis” we could learn from, but don’t. We’re not suggesting that we should strive to be — or even could be — infallible. We’re all taken at some point, by an overblown sales pitch or an unreliable news source. But we are taken in too often, and some reflection now might save us some pain the next time. And by the way, not all hoaxers are out specifically to play us and have some fun. Many actually believe the lies or fantasies that they are telling us. Or, they have told so many fictions for so long that truth and fantasy aren’t even concepts anymore.
- Challenge conventional wisdom.
- Distrust unanimity. When everyone else is nodding and applauding, step back and think. Ask, “Why is everyone so certain?”
- When there’s a push to get stories into the paper right away, slow down and take a second look.
- Resist the urge to size up a subject or a story quickly. Assume you don’t know the full story. Never assume you do.
- If a story bothers you, stop and think about why it bothers you. Don’t let it be published until you feel right about it. Your gut instinct often gives you the best advice. Take it.
- Look for what’s not in the story. What’s missing?
- Question stories you can’t check out in time for deadline.
- Question stories everyone in the newsroom thinks are terrific.
- Question the herd instinct in the editing process.
So, why talk Te’o now? Because enough time has passed to reflect on it, reasonably, and to draw conclusions about what we might learn rather than simply trade our “gut feelings” about this story with one another. We have a few facts, the timeline is becoming more focused, and Te’o has unburdened himself twice, to Jeremy Schaap and Katie Couric (view video excerpt, below).
The big take-away seems fairly clear. We fell in love with the story and suspended our skepticism. The old saying holds so true: The story that seems too good to be true may well be too good to be true. As Manti told his story, a few follow-up questions by mildly curious journalists undoubtedly would have prompted either outright evasions from him or answers that didn’t ring true. And that would have led to even more questions. Why didn’t we ask them — besides our “love” for this perfect story that blinded us?
Ranking as the No. 2 reason: It felt unseemly to ask, to probe, when Manti demurred on the basics — not providing a picture of his girlfriend, or an obituary notice when she died, or the names of her parents … not providing anything, really. A couple of reporters have acknowledged “it just seemed weird,” but they didn’t want to press a man in mourning.
Finally, as the website awfulannouncing.com convincingly argues, sometimes other “noise” can get in the way of just pushing for news and the truth. Did access — and fear of losing it — trump everything? Did big media fear angering such a star, losing access to a potential Heisman trophy winner? (Eventually he finished second in the balloting.) Right up to the end, awfulannouncing.com reports, other factors than journalism ruled ESPN’S approach, even when it was onto the news: “The worldwide leader” held off on going with its story, and lost a scoop to a four-person news operation at Deadspin, because it wanted Te’o on camera, on its national air, so it could get the biggest “pop” out of a story that it – and others – had missed for many months. Odd.
The concept of “skeptical editing” — asking questions about a story — can be practiced at any time, but it works best on big projects and on big, continuing stories like this one. It can save us from ourselves, and from others.
I emailed Reid MacCluggage, whose tips for skeptical editors are in our breakout box with this post, and asked him for his takeaway. The former publisher of the New London Day who was once APME director, was succinct:
Here we go again. What can I say that hasn’t already been said a hundred times? Check it out. Check it out not to debunk Te’o's story necessarily, but to make the story better. Why not find out more about the girlfriend? Wouldn’t that have made a better story? In doing so, questions would have been raised about her existence and maybe a skeptical reporter would have paused and looked deeper. Journalism is self-correcting. Eventually, some enterprising reporter will check it out . . . and come up with a story at least as good as the original. So why not do it right from the get-go?
The concept of skeptical editing is treated as one of the 50 strategies in our book, “Think Like an Editor.” The second edition is now available. You can buy the Skeptical Editing strategy as an e-chapter if you wish, to guide a group discussion or supplement your own reflection. It’s Strategy 18: Skeptical Editing: Ask Key Questions Graph by Graph, echapter Section 3, Assessing the Story. Or simply collect a few pieces of the Manti trail and then identify for yourself the many warning signs journalists ignored. What were they? Why did we miss them? How can we “get it” next time?
Regardless, to reflect on Manti Te’o costs nothing but time – time well-spent.
We have a media lab of the future right here in Syracuse, where the Syracuse Post-Standard is evolving into a “new newsroom,” where staffers have no desks or workspaces of their own and carry their own mini-newsroom on their backs. It’s a story worth following, as parent company Advance probably will be following this model at its other properties, too. And in many ways, it could well be a model for others, a model to follow — or avoid.
We’ll see. (The Post-Standard print edition goes from seven to three days a week beginning next month. The idea is that the digital news operation will produce a newspaper, too. Old model: the print operation produces a digital product, too.)
It’s certainly an interesting idea with implications for how news organizations evolve, and how their employees work (happily, or not?).
The news operation gave itself a new name — The Syracuse Media Group — and a new location a half dozen blocks from the old one downtown. Stories about the shift emphasize the new space is a glass-front home where its news consumers are welcome to walk right in and talk to anyone. (I do wonder if this concept will change. Reporters who do their jobs well are plenty accessible to their sources and readers, and a little bit of security these days — at least requiring visitors to sign in, as they do now at the P-S offices downtown — does not seem like a bad idea.) And, sometimes, don’t you need some quiet and some space — literally some space — to get your work done? All of this said, with the apparent emphasis on being “out there,” will readers who walk in even find anyone there? What will draw reporters there, much less readers? Will there even be a coffee-maker?
A time or two over the years, people who are not in this profession have asked me if working in the news business isn’t rather solitary. I’ve always said “no, not really.” The news is quite collaborative at its core, with reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists and others working together and strengthening the whole through the power of the parts. I was especially struck by this new decentralized model when a recent SMG advertisement for new employees emphasized how news-gatherers would be able to post news digitally, directly and instantly to the readers, with no editors in the way to slow the process (or correct errors, or improve the work?). I do wonder if our journalism students will find this new and often-solitary work model an attractive one. I, for one, enjoy “teammates,” and recognize that they are more than that: a support group, sounding board and backstop … mentors, advisers and friends I looked forward to seeing every day when I was in the newsroom. (A recent Editor & Publisher guest column discusses how to preserve “old” space and “new” in ways that foster collaboration.) Read the rest of this entry »
It’s a new semester this week at Syracuse University — new classes and lesson plans, new projects and, of course, more new tools than any of us can grasp while still covering the “basics.”
And, there’s a new second edition of “Think Like an Editor” with new strategies focused on social media and digital production and delivery. (And a new look on the blog.)
As I was telling a class Monday, one of the sayings I really like is this one: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you respond to it.”
This could be said about journalism today. It’s not all that’s new in the business that matters, but how we deal with it. We don’t have to do it all from Day One, much less understand it all. But we do have an obligation to try new things and step outside our comfort zones every semester.
It is surprising to realize sometimes that we (students and teachers alike) have settled for the “known” and comfortable, not because we are lazy but because there is so much that is new and so much “old” to juggle, too. We pick what we know — and what we can do well.
Rather than feel overwhelmed, pick a modest challenge and accept that trying to do “some” is better than ignoring “all.”
(Finally, just as I was to post this morning, was this sobering reminder from Poynter, a reminder that nothing, indeed, matters if we get it wrong.)
Errors happen. When they do, the best reaction is a swift correction.
It might be comforting to think that with online content, errors can be fixed in real time and the content posted again — without drawing attention to it with a published correction.
Not so fast.
When online publishers and posters don’t point out errors, they miss the all-important aspect of transparency, which is what maintains credibility. Journalists need to be credible.
If you want to get a grasp of the kinds of errors that happen, how they spread and how they are fixed, check out Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error blog on The Poynter Institute website. At this writing, the top item on the blog is word that Jill Kelley was referred to as a “socialist” rather than the correct “socialite” in coverage of the David Petraeus resignation.
And, actually, that story in the news offers another example of the importance of credibility — and what’s at stake when that credibility is lost.
My most recent post here was about hoaxes, and we are talking about them again — this time in connection with fake photos and information about Hurricane Sandy, as tweeted and retweeted on Twitter.
It’s no surprise.
A New York Times piece today puts the issue in perspective, with some interesting solutions provided by digital experts. One of the ideas, as attributed to Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet law at Harvard: “an annotation, like “xTweet,” to signal something as false, or even a bit of metadata that would flag a message as inaccurate, even after a posting is passed around by others.”
The consensus seems to be that Twitter cannot monitor all tweets, especially during major breaking news. That’s why it’s up to each of us, all the time.
- Do you read a link before you retweet the tweet?
- Do you view the photo before you pass it on?
- Do you consider the source of what you share?
These are three simple ways we can be diligent every time we engage with others on Twitter.
Will we succeed?
My guess is that journalists trained in how to be skeptical, how to assess information from sources and how to “check it out” will be at an advantage. But, still, we all must be vigilant each and every time.