ESPN straddles the line on rumors

One of the biggest discrepancies between sports journalism and the rest of journalism is the attitude toward rumors. In most of journalism, rumors are a bad thing. Not just a bad thing, but something respectable reporters try to avoid.

That doesn't mean reporters ignore them, especially when it comes to politics and entertainment. Instead, journalists work to convert rumors to substantiated, sourced information before they see the light of day. Very big, legitimate stories often start out as rumors – think John Edwards and his mistress, which started out as tabloid fodder.

In sports journalism, though, rumors are part of the stock-in-trade. You can’t cover sports without wading into the territory of rumor reporting. In fact, given the explosion of social media, you probably couldn’t cover sports at all if you planned to eschew rumors.

At ESPN.com, rumors are packaged into a key product behind the Insider pay wall called Rumor Central (tagline: News before it’s news.) It caters to a slice of the overall audience that includes gamblers, fantasy players and the most die-hard fans who need to know more than their buddies at the bar. And the name alone presents a significant conflict to an organization that wants to be indispensable and highly profitable, yet above the scrum that passes for sports journalism in this digital era.

We get it that you can’t ignore rumors in sports and still be a journalist. There are just too many of them that, whether or not they turn out to be true, have an impact on the outcome of the game. Instead, what partly defines most sports journalism outfits is which rumors they grab on to.

Beat reporters at ESPN track rumors the way air traffic controllers track planes. It’s a constant thrum of activity. Although they might be bringing a story in for a landing or doing the legwork to help another take off, there are dozens of possibilities floating around out there in the atmosphere.

Where a completely high-minded news organization would wait to see which rumors grow into something more, and a tabloid would dive in without compunction, ESPN straddles the line, serving up a serious helping of rumors, yet staying away from the most shaky, most sordid whispers.

There are more than 700,000 subscriptions to ESPN Insider, almost double what it was four years ago. That includes fans who buy in at $7.95 a month, as well as those who subscribe to the magazine for $39.99 a year. Rumor Central (RC) is a collection of blogs that contain aggregated links about rumored sports transactions and developments sourced from wire services, radio reports, newspapers and other sports sites, as well as reporting that is original to ESPN.

“Part of ESPN's mission is to serve sports fans wherever they are,” said Daniel Kaufman, deputy editor for Insider. “RC serves that mission by engaging in sometimes dicey conversations in a way that is clearly labeled as different than news.”

Most of the items include a short analysis of the rumor from a reporter or analyst within the ESPN tent, setting RC apart from competitors such as NFL Talk or MLB Rumors. Traffic varies among the columns. For instance, the NFL Rumor Central blog generates between 50,000 and 100,000 page views a day (among paid users).

Ten editors who work in various cities around the country staff Rumor Central. They scour blogs, Twitter, other news sites and ESPN’s own vast content, searching for items of interest.

“We know we are operating in a gray space here,” Kaufman said during a phone interview. “We wanted to create a professional rumor product with an ESPN stamp on it.”

To that end, RC strives to deliver rumors plus context. The editors are always trying to tap into ESPN’s vast array of experts to answer these questions: What does it mean? What’s the potential impact? ESPN mostly tries to stay out of the muck.

“There are rumors that we won’t touch that other people will,” he said. Describing the tone RC writers are expected to strive for, Kaufmann said, “You should always believe there is a chance, even if it’s only a slim chance, that the item is true.”

It’s easier to describe what doesn’t go into RC than what does. Sexual exploits of professional athletes and immature rants of college recruits are examples of the kind of material RC avoids.

When we took a closer look at ESPN’s rumor factory, we found another surprise: Much of what gets reported isn’t really a rumor at all. In other areas of journalism, when reporters are delving into rumors, they often try to disguise it as something else. But in sports journalism, the rumor label gets slapped onto a lot of content because that’s what the audience is primed to consume.

Here’s some of what passes for rumors on ESPN:

Expert analysis: In addition to what happens in the game or on the field, part of the excitement of sports is what might happen to the main characters of this drama in the future. A player’s stock rises and falls with his performance. Contracts expire. Teams move. ESPN has an army of people who spend years watching these intricate moves unfold and talking to other people. So when something is about to happen, those reporters and commentators are among the most expert commentators who can say, “Here are the three possibilities, and here is the most likely outcome.”

When that happens, that’s not really a rumor at all. It’s more like qualified speculation. Sometimes it seems like a rumor because the speculator isn’t telling the audience how much of the possibility he thought up in his own head and how much of it he has gathered from others. But it’s still speculation.

For example, this extensive blog analysis by ESPN writer Buster Olney on David Price’s likely trade this winter from the Tampa Bay Rays also led to a similar Rumor Central item.

Mere observation: Take this item reported in Rumor Central: “Late Night at Wrigley: When the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates finally took the field Monday night for their last meeting this season, a rain delay of 3 hours and 37 minutes at the outset created the latest starting time in Wrigley Field history. The first pitch took place at 10:42 p.m.”

Well-sourced, on-the-record information: A good chunk of what appears on the rumor vertical is just the opposite of a rumor. Instead, it’s attributed information. Right there in the copy, you’ll see the name and title of the source. Sometimes it’s information that comes right out of a news conference or media release.

When Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard’s game status game was up in the air, RC sourced the Baltimore Sun, quoting a team official. "'We will see about Bernard,' HC John Harbaugh said Monday, per the Baltimore Sun. 'He's got a little rib deal in there. It's just going to come down to him and how he can deal with that pain.'"

Anonymously sourced information: This information is surfaced by well-connected beat reporters and bloggers from sources who can’t be named but who are in a position to know.

Reported by a competitor: Another category that appears under the rumor headline is information that was also reported by another media outlet. This often gets the “sources say,” or “ESPN has learned” attribution. And it’s impossible to say how much of this is ESPN referencing its competitors and how much of it is anonymous sources revealing information.

For example, this tweet from Jason Beck, Detroit Tigers beat reporter for MLB.com, led to this RC item:

“The Detroit Tigers appear set to miss right-hander Max Scherzer at least one time through the rotation, thanks to a sore shoulder [that] prompted an MRI. Drew Smyly will likely start for Scherzer Sunday, tweets Jason Beck, with Scherzer's start late next week still up in the air. The Tigers are two games behind the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central with two weeks left on the schedule, making Smyly's start against the Twins crucial. Scherzer's status will be reevaluated until the decision on his following start is necessary.”

Actual rumors: This is the information that comes from anonymous sources who aren’t necessarily in a position to know the truth. Differentiated from the anonymously sourced information noted above, reporters cannot peg this information to a source with direct knowledge. Sometimes they have a source with indirect knowledge, such as a guy with the team who heard something, and sometimes it’s information that is just floating around without any roots. There’s a lot of that in the sports world, only a little bit in Rumor Central.

ESPN admits as much and runs this self-description that runs alongside the blog:

Rumor Central represents regular tips and analysis from ESPN sources plus numerous credible external sources from every form of media. We will speculate intelligently and consider future possibilities on open-ended topics. If something looks speculative, it was intended to be.

Translation: You’re getting everything but the kitchen sink.

But as outsiders looking at Insider, we’ve noticed something. ESPN is trying to be both: the upstanding, uber-professional sports newsroom, and the gritty know-it-all gossip-monger.

But can you really have it both ways? Can you have a product called Rumor Central and consider yourself high-minded?

“The problem with rumors is you can justify anything,” said Ronnie Ramos, who teaches at the National Sports Journalism Center, works for the NCAA as managing director for digital communications and is a former sports editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

ESPN clearly wants to be on higher ground than sites such as The Big Lead or Deadspin, which famously published Brett Favre’s alleged sexting pictures. Kaufman says as much.

“We don’t go trolling for comments in chatrooms,” he said. “We are trying to leverage the expertise that we have.

“You’re not reading it to get a thrill. You’re trying to figure out what to do with your flex position [on your fantasy football team].”

ESPN has said it wants to be all things to all sports fans. Everyone agrees that the explosion of social media use has only exacerbated the volume of rumors in the sports world. Four years ago, Kaufman said he spent a lot of time worrying about being first on rumors. These days he doesn’t even try.

“Twitter will always be first,” he said. “What we have to offer is more about context and adding something smart to the conversation.”

Rumor Central is an example of how ESPN brushes up against that boundary of ethical behavior, crosses it ever so slightly, then justifies it by trying to bring virtue to an inherently dishonorable pursuit.

It hurts the brand by reinforcing the perception that ethics don’t matter to ESPN when there is money to be made.

Kaufman’s clear-eyed explanation of the balance he and his staff walk every day is somewhat reassuring. But mere thoughtfulness isn’t enough to declare something journalistically sound. Although media organizations often choose to pursue work that isn’t journalistic at its core, when that work undermines the central dedication to journalism values, it is fair to question the overall commitment to journalism.

Hard-core sports fans have demonstrated a willingness to consume every type of suspect information in their quest to get an edge over handicappers, one-up their buddies and satiate an unquenchable desire to know more about the players they deify.

And ESPN figures out a way to serve them what they want, whether it’s journalism or not.