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ESPN loosens standards with treatment of Body Issue photos

One of the limitations of any public editor or ombudsman position is that, to an extent, it reflects one person’s opinion. Sure, those of us in these roles for media companies do plenty of reporting in an attempt to expand the range of voices reflected in any piece. But in the end, our opinions are filtered through the lens of our personal and professional experiences.

I mention this because this concept of this column started simply: to weigh in on the cheeky presence of Conor McGregor in the lead position on ESPN.com’s home page on July 5.

The photo was an extension of ESPN The Magazine's annual Body Issue, which has become one of the publication’s core franchises since it debuted in October 2009. The intent of the issue, which features a variety of athletes in nude and semi-nude poses is, according to ESPN, “to celebrate and explore the athletic form.”

The Body Issue is a significant revenue driver for The Magazine and has generated more advance buzz every year since its debut. And, as art, the Body Issue is always quite beautifully staged and photographed.

But, for a public editor who turned 49 last week, the photo of McGregor’s bare rear atop ESPN’s home page -- which promoted a video that also featured some nudity -- seemed like a clear case of overreach. I’m far from a prude, but have generally lived in a media world in which you keep the public space clean and, if you don’t, you make sure to warn consumers about content some might find offensive. A naked rear end in ESPN’s virtual town square seemed like an easy call to criticize.

And that opinion was supported by most of the public emails I received on the matter:

  • Jonathan Ling: “This is not appropriate fare for the opening page of a respectable website.”

  • Eugene Moseley: “I understand ESPN's desire to expand beyond a traditional sports site with the Body Issue, 535 [sic], Undefeated, etc. But [by] showing a nude picture that shows body parts that wouldn't be acceptable to show in public (or at a Disney theme park, for that matter), I believe you are going well over the line.”

  • Bill Gilman: “Yeah, I get it, ESPN The Magazine does an edition each year celebrating the human body and specifically the bodies of athletes. Fine. If I want to buy it, I will. But Conor MacGregor nude on the front page of ESPN.com? No, that is unacceptable.”

I agree with these readers. I wouldn’t have run the McGregor photo in such a high-profile position.

Before I wrote about the topic, however, I decided to test my own gut and run the image past some friends and colleagues, some older than me, some younger. And I waited for the responses that would surely support my position that running the photo was inappropriate on the home page of one of the country’s largest websites.

Instead, to my surprise, not a single person I polled who was 30 or younger raised any objection to the photo. In fact, most lauded its artistic quality. Among those I asked who were 40 or older, all but one said they found the picture inappropriate for such prominent placement.

Suddenly, the subject of interest to me was less McGregor’s derriere than the shifting standards of a new generation, and how ESPN serves content accordingly.

In subsequent discussions with a variety of ESPN executives, it’s clear that standards are shifting and the network is trying to shift with them. The younger generation of consumers -- which, like all media companies, ESPN is eager to attract -- doesn’t have the same hang-ups about nudity, profanity and other long-held no-no’s that older generations do. That’s not a value judgment on any generation, it’s just a fact. The explosion of the internet and social media has obliterated the barriers that once largely kept profanity and nudity away from the general consumer.

When the media served as gatekeeper, general rules about nudity and profanity were easier to apply. But in today’s world, the media controls only a portion of what’s published. Just as often, media sites sit downstream and sift through what is published and try to help the news consumer make sense of it. As a result, younger consumers are exposed to far more nudity and profanity than older generations were at their ages, and, to a large extent, are immune to it.

It’s not just nudity where ESPN has relaxed a bit. The use of profanity -- while far from common -- is used in higher frequency on ESPN’s sites, in The Mag and even on air, though it’s “bleeped.”

But this loosening of standards around profanity and nudity has always felt subtle. That’s why, in my view, the McGregor photo generated more complaints to the public editor than any other ESPN.com decision since I assumed this position: It felt more like an overt statement that times have indeed changed.

But, according to Chad Millman, ESPN’s vice president and editorial director of domestic digital content, the decision to run the McGregor photo wasn’t limited to ESPN.com.

“We’ve never had warnings about how pictures can be used on the site,” Millman said. “Every picture that is in the magazine or online goes through a rigorous vetting process long before it sees the light of day. That includes a wide swath of diverse editorial folks at every level of the organization. ... Once that vetting process is managed, there’s no real need for a secondary discussion about whether or not something can or should be used for ESPN.com.”

Fair enough, but there’s a difference between whether a photo is used and how it’s used. On the Body Issue’s magazine cover, for example, there was a sponsored wrap that allowed readers, using a scanner, to receive a bonus Body Issue photo. But that wrap also prevented anyone from seeing a nude athlete cover image that left little to the imagination.

According to Alison Overholt, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine and espnW, a “nice additional benefit [of the cover wrap] was that for our 2.1 million subscribers -- many of whom may have young children and may want to be thoughtful about when and how to share and talk about body images with their families -- the wrap allowed them to choose when and how to see the actual Magazine cover.”

But readers didn’t get to make that choice on the ESPN.com home page, the network’s most prominent digital real estate. According to comScore -- a leading digital audience measurement company -- ESPN’s digital platforms reached 79.1 million people in the U.S. in July, making it the 32nd-largest digital property in the U.S. and the most-trafficked digital sports property in the country.

Yes, home pages have become less important to most media operations because of the rise of social media and search, but they still remain crucially important in communicating what a brand stands for. And that’s precisely why I believe ESPN used the McGregor photo there: It was sending a signal.

It’s also clear from talking to a number of ESPN staffers that the role of the Body Issue has increased in recent years across all of the company’s platforms -- and will become even more important in coming years.

“I think Body is tremendously important for the magazine and for ESPN,” Millman said. “It highlights so many things we do well as far as capturing the zeitgeist with the list of personalities that is put together, talking about all kinds of athletic bodies in ways that are healthy and positive, revealing stories that inspire everyone who reads them because of the obstacles so many of these athletes overcome just to compete. But mostly, it highlights the unbelievable power photography has to make us stop and contemplate what we are seeing.”

Says Overholt: “It is certainly a signature franchise for ESPN. One mark of its impact as we close out Year 8 of producing Body is that athletes regularly talk about having grown up wondering if they could be in it someday -- it’s one way they mark their own success, to appear in the issue. For fans, it’s an annual opportunity to celebrate all the many forms the human body takes.”

The strategic importance of the Body Issue likely assures that it will continue to produce both revenue and discussion about changing social mores. And given the audience demographics, you can count on seeing more, not less. What is your view? While I’ve already received a number of emails on this topic, I’d be interested in getting more opinion. Feel free to send them to PublicEditor@ESPN.com or post on Twitter or Facebook.