Wording, attribution should be sacrosanct

Late last month, Jarrod Rudolph, an Orlando, Fla., writer for RealGM.com, tuned in to the 10 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter.” A little more than an hour earlier, Rudolph had reported that Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan had met with Dwight Howard, the disgruntled Magic star who was seeking a trade.

Now, Rudolph was curious to see whether ESPN would pick up that bit of news.

Indeed, anchor Chris Cotter reported the Hennigan-Howard meeting, crediting “sources.” But what Cotter read on "SportsCenter" was almost exactly what Rudolph had written.

Rudolph told the Poynter Review Blog that he waited for Cotter to credit RealGM but heard nothing. He played the report back to make sure he hadn’t missed it. Then he took his case to Twitter: “How does the anchor on Sportscenter read my article verbatim and not credit me? That’s ri-damn-diculous.”

From there, ESPN’s critics picked it up.

What happened here?

Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, told us that a “SportsCenter” segment producer copied part of RealGM’s account into Cotter’s script, then erred by only partially rewriting it after ESPN and other news outlets worked to match the story.

Here’s how the process normally works, according to Doria:

ESPN’s TV news desk is generally staffed by three editors. One of their jobs is to compile an in-house newswire of current stories that have been reported by ESPN, The Associated Press, other news organizations, websites and blogs -- anything, Doria said, “that we think has some credibility.”

The origin of stories is noted on the newswire, which is in turn the basis for the “hot list” of stories to be showcased to get on ESPN’s shows and otherwise be disseminated to readers and viewers.

Doria said ESPN credits news entities that break news, but then works to confirm information itself and watches what other organizations are reporting. As other news entities begin to report the same story and ESPN itself gets confirmation from sources it deems credible, the credit is typically changed to “sources.” (Doria noted that “blockbuster” stories are handled differently, with ESPN continuing to give credit to appropriate outlets for them for some time.)

Doria said that ESPN confirmed the Howard report, which Yahoo also had reported. A “SportsCenter” producer then copied the RealGM story about Howard from the newswire into Cotter’s script, changing the reference to RealGM’s reporting to “sources” based on the twin confirmations. The next step was to rewrite the item for Cotter to read on the air. But that step was never taken, a mistake Doria blamed on a “lack of communication” as the producer tackled breaking news.

“This stuff happens from time to time,” Doria said, adding that “you’d like it never to happen.”

Doria said ESPN has since sent out a memo to staffers reminding them how the process is supposed to work. ESPN said it has apologized to Rudolph, and Rudolph said that “SportsCenter” credited RealGM on a similar report later that night.

The “SportsCenter” producer responsible for the mistake wasn’t disciplined, Doria said.

“I don’t think [the misattribution] should have happened, but people make mistakes,” he said.

We agree that this kind of thing happens in the crush of breaking news and think it’s wise of ESPN not to automatically penalize such missteps. (Although we do still wonder why anchor Max Bretos was treated less forgivingly in what seems like a similar situation.)

But we also cringe to hear that something was copied, even if it’s for preparatory purposes in the newsgathering process. The background facts of any news story quickly become common knowledge and common property, and reporting is built on other reporting. Journalists generally accept this, albeit with some grousing. Wording, on the other hand, is sacrosanct -– which makes it imperative to keep information gathered from other news outlets separate from one’s own work.

If another organization’s wording is copied -– say, from a newswire to the first draft of an anchor’s script -– you have an embarrassing error waiting to happen unless someone takes steps to prevent it. That’s a dangerous way of working, given the massive volume of information ESPN deals with.

We’d suggest that ESPN forbid copying other organizations’ words into scripts or other material going out to readers and viewers. Since rewriting is a necessary part of the process, move that step slightly earlier, with the attribution only removed after the rewrite is complete. Would that make the news process slightly slower? Perhaps. But if the starting point is another organization’s work, ESPN is already following and matching, not leading. A small tweak or two in the workflow, we believe, would lead to fewer accusations and apologies.