The Common Sense approach to social media

The intersection of traditional media and social media is a perilous one. On one hand, the ability of journalists to communicate directly with consumers has helped them build relationships, develop voices and increase their own marketability. At the same time, criticism that once came via private email or phone calls is now posted publicly for the world to see. As a result, many journalists rightfully see social media as both an opportunity and a trap.

This conundrum has left media organizations awkwardly grappling with how to manage the interaction between journalists and consumers. A scan of some published versions of social media policies -- such as those from The Associated Press and NPR, for example -- reveal a broad range. More traditional news organizations prefer their reporters to stay in their lanes, tweet mostly about their areas of expertise and stay away from commentary, and especially opinions that carry an ideological tint. Startup news organizations generally give journalists a freer rein, under the assumption that the more active and opinionated the voice, the more effective it will be at growing audience.

ESPN is a bit of a hybrid: an almost 40-year-old news organization staffed largely by journalists it wants to have strong voices in the social realm. The network’s social media policy was first posted to its Front Row site in August 2011 and hasn’t been publicly updated since. According to Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content, the company’s editorial standards and practices are regularly the subject of internal review but the main themes of that 2011 social media policy still stand.

In and of itself, that is surprising, considering the constantly shifting sands of social media. But a closer look at those guidelines reveals why they’ve barely changed: They are quite broad and rely on common sense more than on a strictly defined set of rules. The basic philosophy is a combination of “Don’t be stupid” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This policy seems to have served ESPN well because -- all things considered -- the number of significant controversies involving ESPN and social media has been surprisingly small. Even Wikipedia’s exhaustive “Criticism of ESPN” page has virtually nothing relating to social media.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t get complaints about how ESPN employees sometimes use social media, and they generally fall into two buckets:

  1. That an ESPN employee has been unnecessarily nasty in response to negative reader feedback.

  2. That an ESPN employee has blocked a reader from seeing his or her social media posts at all.

On the first issue, common sense should prevail on both sides. There’s nothing wrong with readers proffering well-stated, respectful criticism, and, when that happens, that respect should be returned by the ESPN personality. Yes, the line between respectful and blunt is sometimes blurry, especially in written form, but ESPN employees should err on the side of caution.

But what about when criticism isn’t polite or respectful when it crosses a line into abuse and personal attacks? Examples of this are not difficult to find. Sadly, one can just look at the replies to the social media posts of many ESPN staffers -- especially its female personalities -- to see some of the nasty trolling to which they are subject. In cases like that, what should an ESPN journalist do? The network’s social media guidelines say this:

Think before your tweet. Understand that at all times you are representing ESPN, and Twitter (as with other social sites) offers the equivalent of a live microphone. Simple rule: If you wouldn't say it on the air or write it in a column, don't post it on any social network.

This is solid advice, but on a network increasingly focused on personalities with strong opinions, the last sentence gets murky. There are plenty of controversial and provocative things said every day on ESPN’s TV, radio, print and digital properties, so that would suggest a pretty wide berth for ESPN staffers in social media. And I think that’s a good thing.

My opinion on dealing with social media trolling is probably different from many people's. I don’t take any issue with the occasional pushback on a troll. Sure, most journalists try to avoid Twitter spats -- they are generally a waste of time and energy. But how can media organizations push their journalists to use social media to better engage with readers, then tell them they must look the other way when faced with abusive comments? At the end of the day -- famous or not -- journalists also remain human beings. Sometimes, they’re going to break.

“That’s what happens when you come crazy at a regular person,” said Bomani Jones, co-host of ESPN’s “Highly Questionable” and someone who’s never shy at mixing it up with fans or with critics. But going back at critics does come with some risk. For example, just last week, For The Win wrote a story about a relatively minor back-and-forth between ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt and a fan who, well, wasn’t a big fan. Van Pelt closed with this bon mot.

Later in the thread, Van Pelt summed up thinking I’ve heard from many journalists over the years.

In 2015, ESPN’s Michelle Beadle got into a battle with a particularly nasty subset of Florida State fans after she was critical of the football team’s myriad off-the-field issues. Some of the tweets aimed at her were reprehensible and disgusting. Yet when Beadle fired back, the story for many blogs and media critics became her response.

“In some ways, [social media] empowered people to have a seat at the table who weren’t invited,” Beadle said.

Interestingly, the Florida State dustup and some other social media battles finally persuaded Beadle to largely disengage from social media.

“People would say, ‘Why are you only responding to the negatives?’ and I thought that was a good point,” she said. “And when I got the NBA job, my manager was like, ‘I don’t want you to be responding to every tweet. It’s not a great look to sit here and fight with idiots.’ ... Now, they’re just yelling into the abyss.”

ESPN’s Jane McManus wrote an excellent piece in 2016 addressing the issue of social media abuse, focusing largely on her perspective as a woman. Wrote McManus, in part:

The truth is, it isn't just Twitter. Over the years, what has bothered me more -- at the many outlets where I've contributed copy -- are the comments left directly under my stories. "Don't read the comments," everyone says, and it's true that the racism and sexism aren't just directed at an author, yet it seemed particularly galling to me that a space intended for community and conversation created by an outlet for which I work could turn into a breeding ground for the same abuse spewed at women on Twitter.

The delightful requests to go back to the kitchen and get some sandwiches (Why is it so hard for trolls to make sandwiches? This is a mystery.) or insults about my looks could appear just a scroll or two under my byline.

McManus closed the piece thusly:

Most of us are happy to have a genuine dialogue about an issue, but we didn't volunteer to be your verbal punching bag. What has been troubling over the years is that it becomes our de facto role when some social media sites and media outlets decline to take the reins. Like, is it really so difficult to offer us the ability to auto block someone coming at us with the c-word? Someone's gotta be able to write a few lines of code.

So instead, it is up to women to not read the comments or their mentions, or to absorb the love if they choose to engage.

And we are communicators. Of course we choose to engage.

McManus is correct: Engaging is the right instinct. But expecting ESPN personalities to act like automatons when attacked isn’t always realistic. So, do I object to ESPN personalities occasionally going on the offensive against the general nastiness that can emanate from social media? No. Should there be limits on that? Of course. It does ESPN no good to have any of its journalists being profane or making threats. Understandably, though, going on offense might not be a great fit for a corporate entity such as ESPN.

“Social media values candor more than companies are generally comfortable with,” Jones said. ”People who follow me have a much better sense of who I am, and the modern consumer wants that personal connection. … It’s hard to seem like a real person if you only respond to positive feedback.”

Obviously, Jones and Beadle speak only for themselves. Each personality at ESPN needs to find his or her own comfort zone when it comes to dealing with trolls. According to a piece written by author -- and self-confessed former troll -- Paul Jun, engaging trolls is always a bad idea:

The reason we respond to negative comments is the same reason a troll does what they do: ego. When someone unknown comes at us, it’s part of our human nature to defend ourselves. A part of us doesn’t want to stay silent, because we think silence means surrendering, and surrendering means losing. That’s just a bad philosophy.

After years of dealing with this kind of behavior, both in a virtual reality and in the comment sections of an article, the harsh reality is this: You will never beat a troll. You will never change a troll’s mind. You may delude yourself into thinking that you proved them wrong, however, never in my years of dealing with trolls have I seen a troll lay down his or her arms and say, “You know what, you’re right. I was so wrong.”

Although Jun might be right -- “beating” a troll might be difficult -- it’s still hard to preach complete abstinence. But if you do engage, this Hootsuite article from 2015 provides some useful tips.

The second issue is whether ESPN is OK with its personalities blocking users on social media. ESPN’s social media policy does not directly address this, but my opinion is that trying to avoid blocking is probably the best plan. Sure, if you’re dealing with a nasty, persistent troll, blocking might be your only option -- though muting achieves some of the same goals -- but ESPN personalities should avoid using blocking when the issue is a simple disagreement.

In fact, even after she largely disengaged from social media, Beadle went back and unblocked everyone she had blocked, saying she’d come to feel it was a bad look. Another reason to avoid blocking: It can be viewed as a badge of honor to some trolls, so why give the satisfaction? Blocking also keeps those followers from seeing your posts, and why limit distribution of your work when using the mute function on Twitter can serve largely the same purpose?

Coincidentally, Twitter this week launched three new features to allow it to curb abuse better. This is a hopeful sign that Twitter is finally taking steps to deal with the abuse that has plagued it for some time.


Another topic of interest to me in these fascinating political times is the right of individuals to hold their own opinions, unpopular as they can be. Increasingly, the opinions of some ESPN personalities are being met with demands from viewers that they be punished or fired.

After the Celtics’ Jae Crowder expressed frustration when Boston fans cheered Utah’s Gordon Hayward, Bomani Jones got into hot water when he hinted strongly on “Highly Questionable” that race might have played a role. Though Crowder, who is black, didn’t suggest race might have played a role in the fans cheering Hayward, a potential free agent who is white, Jones did.

"Is there another arena in the whole country that would get this charged about Gordon Hayward maybe coming as a free agent? Clapping for Kevin Durant is one thing. But if you put Gordon Hayward on the same level as Kevin Durant, you might be the city that had the Kevin Love welcoming tour when he wasn’t even a free agent yet,"

Later that day, on “Around the Horn,” ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez hinted similarly.

"It’s Boston. They’re famous for having Larry Bird on their team. Gordon Hayward looks more like Larry Bird than other players in the league. So maybe there’s that Boston connection there."

Needless to say, both comments drew fire from Boston fans, including one that said:

Both Bomani Jones and Israel Gutierrez characterized the fans’ cheering as racist. Mr. Jones directly, and Mr. Gutierrez indirectly. I understand that both shows feature hot takes/instant reactions. I also understand that these shows seek controversy as a driver of commercial success. However, at what point is there consequence for bias? Were an ESPN personality to accuse a group of people, en masse, of a shared unflattering characteristic wouldn't we be justified in calling that out as bias?

How does Jones respond to such criticism?

“I don’t think they wanted me to be fired because they disagreed with me; I think they wanted me to be fired because they think I committed a fireable offense,” Jones said. “I never said Boston was a racist city; I said Boston has a particular affection for white players, which is not the same thing.” (Jones later clarified that, on the radio, he had said Boston was a racist city but had said it in the context of all cities being inherently racist.)

Although the topic was different, ESPN’s Sage Steele recently drew some fire after an Instagram post complaining about how the protests over President Donald Trump’s immigration ban complicated her travel out of the Los Angeles airport.

Yes, Steele’s Instagram post came off as tin-eared to many. And taking on race is always fraught with peril, and Jones walked a fine line, for sure, so I can understand the offense taken by many Boston fans. But, that said, neither Steele nor Jones is required to feel the same way about every issue as every reader. We’re not talking here about misstating a universally agreed-upon fact; we’re talking about the opinions of people who have arrived there via their own personal experience.

“If anything, I was more disappointed than surprised at the reaction,” Steele said. “Even though I have been through something like this before, the number of insults, racist remarks and name-calling just because someone doesn't like something you write or say is sad. So many people preach acceptance, open-mindedness, and all aspects of diversity, yet somehow justify this kind of behavior.”

It should go without saying that fans have the same right to their opinions as Jones and Steele do. And if they find the comments of ESPN employees offensive, fans can choose not to watch or listen to their shows, and they can try to encourage others to do the same. They can also write their own rebuttals, just as The Boston Globe did regarding Jones’ comment. ESPN’s own Dan Le Batard responded directly to Steele’s Instagram post, and users can do the same -- in fact, they can go all the way to deciding to boycott ESPN altogether.

But insisting that personalities be punished for expressing unpopular opinions is reflective of the problems we have discussing just about any topic today. Steele actually put it quite well in response to respectful criticism of her Instagram post.

“Would it feel good to respond to some of the craziness? Sure!,” Steele said. “But again, it's a never-ending cycle that I just refuse to be a part of.”

Yes, there should be a limit to what ESPN is willing to allow its commentators to say, and it’s up to network management to be as clear as possible about what those limits are. But, barring something truly beyond the pale, it’s unlikely any ESPN personality would be terminated over a single comment or social media post. And, in a world where patience for opposing viewpoints seems to be evaporating, I think that’s a good position for the company to take.

“In my lifetime -- I'm 44 -- I cannot recall a more intolerant time than the one we are living in now,” Steele said. “I think it has been building for years, and this past election put everything over the top. But here's the thing: This ugliness and divisiveness only sets us back further. I think it is absolutely crucial to respect others' opinions and when we don't -- it goes against everything this country stands for.”