What the ESPN/Frontline breakup teaches us about investigative reporting

As we put the pieces together in this week’s ESPN/Frontline breakup, we’ve learned something about investigative journalism: it’s incredibly difficult for a news organization to hold its own partners accountable.

That may have been obvious. But for the 18 months I was the lead writer on the Poynter Review Project, which served as ESPN’s ombudsman, the brass in Bristol, Conn., insisted ESPN could do both.

We don’t surprise our partners, ESPN executives told me. But they always added that not surprising partners wasn’t the same as not investigating them, as ESPN and Frontline were doing with the NFL. And indeed, ESPN has amassed a remarkable body of work on the subject at hand, the long-term effects of concussions on professional football players.

But investigative reporting is more than just acknowledging harsh realities. Investigative journalists take a stand.

ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, along with journalists at PBS’  Frontline, seem to clearly have formed the opinion that the NFL was negligent in its response to the concussion problem. The two-part documentary and the book that emerged from their reporting is titled “League of Denial.”

The tone of a trailer for the documentary is clearly accusatory, and it was this tone that reportedly gave ESPN CEO John Skipper pause. He told his current ombudsman Robert Lipsyte that the trailer seemed “sensational.”

That Skipper and other executives at ESPN didn’t recognize the hard-charging approach Frontline would take suggests to me that they don’t really recognize the true nature of investigative journalism. After all, ESPN storytelling is no stranger to production techniques meant to elicit an emotional response from viewers, including the use of music and dramatic recreations. ESPN is a master of these techniques, in fact.

When your reporters conclude that a powerful organization like the NFL acted negligently, caused substantial and irreversible harm, and should have known it was doing so, those reporters and the producers they work with are going to employ those same dramatic techniques to convince their audience that their conclusions are warranted. That’s what separates true investigative journalism from merely hard-hitting truth telling: All good reporters unearth facts, but investigative reporters usually arrive at conclusions.

James S. Ettema and Theodore Glasser explored the differences between straight reporting and investigative work in their 1985 essay “On the Epistemology of Investigative Journalism,” which appears in this book. “Investigative reporting is, in short, unabashedly moralistic,” they write.

Ettema and Glasser go on to describe how investigative reporters sort through factual claims, assign credibility to those claims, and then use those facts to justify a larger narrative of the truth.

In journalism today, we have to come to describe all reporting that digs up facts that might be hidden as investigative reporting. But what Ettema and Glasser are describing is a yet higher level of reporting — it is a form of advocacy. They write that while daily and beat reporters strive for a certain distance or objectivity, investigative reporters do the exact opposite. They form opinions based on their reporting.

You can see the opinions forming based the progression of evidence in stories that Frontline and ESPN jointly published before their breakup.

  • The first stories document new discoveries of brain injuries in dead and living football players.
  • This story documents how the NFL prevented the nation’s leading researchers on concussions from studying Junior Seau’s brain after the legendary player committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest specifically so researchers could look at his brain.

Recently stories have become more accusatory:

By looking at the stories in order of publication, we can witness the journalists circling in on the type of evidence that Ettema and Glasser are describing. Certainly there are competing opinions about the seriousness of the concussion problem. But the journalists working on League of Denial have examined the research and the opinions, and have decided that the people who are have been arguing in favor of alarm are correct. And the title of the book and the documentary indicate they think the NFL had reason to pay attention to that information and didn’t.

It’s one thing for journalists to ask tough questions. It’s completely different for journalists to provide the answers to those tough questions. And that’s where ESPN couldn’t seem to go with the NFL.

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“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.

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  • Santiago Alemedia

    I would disagree that investigative journalists need to insert their personal opinions (take a stand) into their stories. By doing so, they often overlook inconvenient truths that conflict with their opinions and close the door on unbiased interpretations. Bring out the facts, tell the tale, but let the readers be the judge.

  • butterflybesos9

    This is both scary and sad…. scary that an employer like the NFL and the owners of the teams would actively cover up such obviously deadly and debilitating injuries from it’s employees and their families and sad that an organization like ESPN would know about it for years and participate in it’s cover up. Both should be held liable