Making the case for standardized policies

Media organizations today face a host of new pressures, from the growing number of rivals reporting news to the increasing importance of social media in disseminating and sharing that news. Amid such rapid change, news outlets such as ESPN face challenges in taking their editorial standards beyond familiar pages and airwaves to new platforms -- and sometimes it’s the tiniest snippet of text that makes those challenges plain.

Shortly before noon on Sept. 7, an editor for the company’s recently rebranded soccer site, ESPNFC.com, tweeted the following: “Clint Dempsey: ‘I just remember calling my wife and my (mom) and almost wanting to break down in tears because it was a tough time.’ ”

The unsourced tweet caught the attention of Sports Illustrated senior reporter Grant Wahl, and with good reason: It was a quote from an SI column Wahl had posted the night before about the soccer star’s English Premier League transfer from Fulham to Tottenham Hotspur.

Noting the lack of attribution, Wahl responded by calling out ESPNFC on Twitter: “[R]evealing quote from Dempsey. Don’t see a source listed. Where did you get it?”

The answer -- and the accompanying Twitter dust-up -- offers a window into how ESPN is wrestling with standards for referencing rivals’ work and crediting them. It also spotlights what ESPN faces in creating a consistent set of standards and practices to govern all of its worldwide news operations.

As Wahl suspected, the Dempsey quote was indeed from his column. It also appeared in a story ESPNFC posted soon after the initial tweet, one that relied heavily on Wahl’s interview with Dempsey. ESPNFC’s story credited Sports Illustrated but didn’t include a link to Wahl’s column.

Wahl continued to call out ESPNFC, tweeting that he was “[s]till waiting for a response on your Dempsey quote. You post links/sources on ESPN stories. Why not SI’s one-on-one with Dempsey?”

James Dall, an ESPNFC editor based in London, responded on Twitter, telling Wahl that the quote was followed up by a tweeted link to ESPNFC’s story, “which then credits your publication. This is more than some will do, sadly.”

Wahl wasn’t mollified: “Sorry, not buying it. ESPN should be better than this.”

The Poynter Review Project agrees with Wahl -- and so does Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com.

Stiegman said ESPN’s standards and practices require “appropriate and proper credit” when an ESPN report references another news organization’s story. Although the ESPNFC report did credit SI, Stiegman said that “what we did not do, initially, was offer that attribution in the tweet that went out referencing that report. In retrospect, we should have.”

Stiegman said ESPN doesn’t have a specific policy about attribution in tweets, but noted that ESPN’s standards and practices apply to all of its journalistic efforts. There’s no exception for social media such as Twitter.

ESPN’s standards are less clear-cut about when to provide a Web link to another news organization’s report. Stiegman said that ESPN stories generally include such links, particularly in its many blogs or when referencing a report that relies on anonymous sources -- but that every situation is different.

For example, ESPN editors sometimes craft news stories from multiple reports, mixing the reporting of ESPN’s own journalists with references other media outlets -- some of which might be reporting details contrary to ESPN. Although ESPN’s rules for crediting would apply in such a case, Stiegman said that, in such nuanced situations, links to those external reports could be confusing and “may not be in the audience’s best interest.”

In the case of the ESPNFC story, however, Stiegman agreed “it would have been user-friendly to include a link” to Wahl’s column and called the absence “an oversight.”

The Twitter back-and-forth that Wahl initiated brought reminders that no sports-news organization is without its digital sins: ESPNFC’s Dall pointed out instances in which Sports Illustrated hadn’t included credits in tweets, or had posted stories dependent on other sources without links.

But another bone of contention was over divergent U.S. and European journalistic standards. Adam Digby, an Italian football correspondent for ESPN, argued on Twitter that it was very “rare to see credit” for quotes on social media, especially tied to European media sites, and said Wahl was “attempting to hold ESPN to a standard that simply does not exist.”

Twitter, Digby argued, “is like writing a headline, as long as credit is in the story I really don’t see the issue at all.” Such a thing, he suggested to Wahl, was “common practice … if it were my quote, I’d be more than happy with it.”

“Enjoy the cesspool over there then,” Wahl retorted. He later clarified that, saying he was referring to journalism practices in parts of Europe, not to ESPN.

Wahl’s gibe was harsh, but it’s true that news organizations in different parts of the world have different journalism philosophies. And those differences sometimes extend to ESPN’s various outposts. Moreover, not every ESPN outlet is homegrown: ESPNFC began in 1995 as Soccernet.com, an independent site. ESPN acquired the site more than a decade ago, and rebranded it as ESPNFC.com this summer.

But ESPN is working to eliminate such internal inconsistencies.

Stiegman acknowledged that “there are, unquestionably, cultural journalistic differences,” adding that ESPN editors from various regions had been engaged in “a healthy and fair debate” about them. He added that plans are under way for "a much deeper alignment" of philosophies and standards with those of ESPN's U.S. operations.

One facet of the skirmish between Wahl and ESPNFC is the practice of aggregation -- making use of another reporter’s work in bringing a story to your own readers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with aggregation. The explosion in digital news has created a new class of journalists who are also skilled aggregators, gathering material from disparate sources and creating link-rich roundups of topical information and analysis. (ESPN’s Buster Olney is one such aggregator, as well as a veteran reporter.) An aggregated bit of news can be the seed for shrewd analysis.

And the Web’s many blog posts, commentaries, reactions and analyses are all ultimately exercises in aggregation -- all of it powered by the possibilities of the link.

But there’s a dark side to aggregation. An excerpted paragraph, quote or even a headline can supply enough information to keep many readers from clicking through to the underlying story. That has led to a brawl within the journalism world about the value of aggregation and what standards, if any, ought to govern it.

ESPN’s policies for attribution and credit strike us as sound, and ESPN is right to apply them to social media, as well. The relative novelty of Twitter doesn’t make it a Wild West where news organizations can shed their journalism standards.

We would suggest, however, that ESPN re-examine its standards for linking to other organizations’ stories. Links are intrinsic to responsible aggregation, simultaneously serving as sound journalism ethics and good customer service. They aren’t just a courtesy but a way to show your work, whether it’s giving credit in a news story or linking to an opposing viewpoint so readers can judge whether an opinion piece was fair.

To us, that calls for erring on the side of linking, and ESPN’s argument that it can be confusing to send readers to stories with potentially contradictory information strikes us as well-intentioned but not terribly helpful.

The problem, as we see it, is that argument conflates two kinds of readers.

Readers with a casual interest in a news development probably will skip over any links in an ESPN story about it. (There’s that dark side of aggregation again.) Readers with greater interest in a news development, on the other hand, might want to read everything they can -- and will understand that different news organizations might be reporting different things. Not including links protects readers who wouldn’t click anyway at the expense of readers who won’t be troubled by contradictions.

Finally, we think ESPN’s effort to standardize practices worldwide is a worthy one.

Online, any story has a potentially global audience, but readers don’t alter their expectations based on where a story is produced. Rather, they set those expectations based on the brand name a story carries.

“At the end of the day, the four letters consistently tied to all of our coverage are ESPN,” Stiegman said, adding that “those four letters carry a brand statement and a quality commitment to journalism that we need to adhere to.”