ESPN should find ways to cover the Trayvon Martin story rather than become part of it

ESPN.com‘s Jemele Hill did a very nice, tight column this week explaining how the lives of professional athletes are connected to the life and death of Trayvon Martin.

Contrast that to ESPN’s bouncing back and forth on whether its talent can post a photo of a “hoodie” via social media in solidarity with the family of the Florida teenager who was shot and killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch captain. That incident occurred as Martin was walking back to his father’s house in Sanford, Fla., to watch the tipoff of the NBA All-Star Game after a run to a convenience store for ice tea and candy.

NFL reporter Michael Smith was one of the ESPN staffers to don a hoodie.

As a journalism organization, ESPN should do more work like Hill’s and less like the self-expression of several others — including ESPN anchors Trey Wingo and Mike Hill, NFL reporter Michael Smith and Grantland writer Jonathan Abrams — who donned hoodies in their Twitter avatars.

If you want to make a difference, explain the story, don’t become part of it.

This is a basic tenet of journalism that is becoming lost in this day of social media – also known as slacktivism. It feels good to join a popular movement by slapping a bumper sticker on your car or wearing your heart on your sleeve. But with a little work, and a little self-restraint, journalists can do so much more.

Using LeBron James’ and other athletes’ show of solidarity as a jumping-off point, Hill explains why Trayvon’s story matters to the sporting world. She offers a litany of examples that document how professional athletes, some of the richest, most powerful people in our society, are often victims of racial profiling.

She practiced journalism. And it’s so much more effective than pulling up the hood on your sweatshirt and taking a picture.

Rob King, senior vice president of editorial for ESPN digital and print media, was involved in the decision over the weekend to allow an exception to the company’s social media policy and allow employees to post the hoodie image on social networks. There was a robust conversation about the topic among ESPN executives before a decision was made, King told us.

“We asked, ‘What are they expressing?’ ” King said. “Visually, they are expressing their notions of tolerance around the case. We feel this is a unique expression.”

In the abstract, that is certainly true. But in the specific instance of this case, the hoodie is a visual expression of support for the parents of Trayvon and their petition for law enforcement to bring charges against the man who killed their son. King said he believes that most of the ESPN folks using the hoodie image were expressing broader support for the value of tolerance.

Even if that’s the case, there’s no way for the audience to know which sentiment was being expressed by the hoodie, or the intent behind it. And we don’t know how the facts in this specific story will continue to change. Hill’s story, meanwhile, will remain salient.

Journalists and other ESPN employees sit on a perch of influence. So they have an enormous reach. They should take that role seriously. When you become part of the story, you lose your ability to tell an independent story. Although it seems sympathetic, and even morally superior, to offer up a political commentary, leave that to the athletes – many, including members of the Miami Heat, showed support for Martin — and, instead, find a way to help the audience better understand the story. (ESPN NBA columnist Michael Wallace wrote about the Heat sending a message of support for Martin last weekend).

ESPN’s policy that prohibits its commentators, anchors, reporters and analysts from making personal political statements is a good one because it preserves the individual’s ability to do powerful work that others cannot do. Although we applaud the willingness to wrestle with the social media policy — it should be a living, breathing document — we were disheartened to see ESPN make an exception to the strongly rooted journalism value of independence.

And it’s not because we want to silence ESPN staffers. Instead, we’d like to see them cover the story, as it relates to sports. Hill found a way to do it. Certainly others can, as well.

This post was also published on ESPN.com as part of the Poynter Review Project.

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  • Anonymous

    I, for one. would like joirnalists to ONLY REPORT the FACTS…they are not op-ed columnists and NEED to quit expressing their opinions as part of their job – OR just state it is THEIR OPINION ONLY..

  • http://twitter.com/FlowerofLola LOLA

    The 1st rule of journalism is to answer these questions: Who? What? Where? When? (in some cases-Why?), and How? Along with the answering of these questions, journalists are supposed to report THE FACTS, and to report them without bias and without indication of personal interest. Reporters are not expressionistic writers, they have made a commitment to deliver the facts to the public, through their writing. I don’t understand why this country has come to expect ALL journalists to align themselves with vested interest groups, and to express personal emotional or moral attachment to the stories they report on. There are currently more than enough blogs, talk-shows, social media outlets, and other sources from which the public can gather information, that is presented with opinion and emotion. For journalists to take any particular stand on the matters on which they report, not only destroys the credibility of the journalist, it also severely compromises the credibility of the story – especially when all the facts have not even been gathered and released. The violent death of a young man, is obviously a tragedy that any civilized member of a society (including a journalist) would find to be a senseless shame. Why should a journalist be required to express this when he/she is on duty?Do we expect other professionals who are on duty at their jobs to be emotionally pontificating on matters of politics, religion, sexism, racism, and crimes that we consider to be social injustices?Journalists who are on duty/reporting……are simply “doing their jobs”, and I – for one, appreciate that there is still a source (though it’s getter slimmer and slimmer, and harder to find) from which I can retrieve un-spinned information about the world around me.

  • Anonymous

    Ms. McBride

    You seem to take umbrage at the slighting of journalism that you perceive in the posting of the hoodie avatars at ESPN. You chide ESPN that “As a journalism organization, ESPN should do more work like Hill’s and less like the self-expression of several others.”

    I think less self-expression should start at home.
    1. You characterize ESPN’s actions as “bounc[ing] back and forth”, which implies numerous changes and is something you inject into the narrative. In fact, they made one: They told their “talent” that they should not do anything. Then, after discussion, they told them that hoodie avatars were allowed in this instance. Bouncing back and forth is an inaccuracy you inject into the story.

    2. You say “..the Florida teenager who was shot and killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood
    watch captain. That incident occurred as Martin was walking back to his
    father’s house in Sanford, Fla., to watch the tipoff of the NBA All-Star
    Game after a run to a convenience store for ice tea and candy.” The way you present the basic information injects self-expression into the facts of the story.
    a. You refer to the killer with the descriptive “neighborhood watch captain” (without including his name. I believe this takes sides on the citizen-protection/vigilante/executioner issue)  In addition, you create a picture in people’s minds the stereotype of a neighborhood watch captain and a hoodie.
    b. You do not include any descriptive terms of Mr. Martin. You could have easily said high-school student. I don’t think this is necessary, but if you are going to describe the killer, you should describe the victim of the killing.
    c. You include the irrelevant fact about the basketball game. If you’re going to include it, please be accurate that the killing happened during halftime.

    3. You say: “If you want to make a difference, explain the story, don’t become part of it.” It’s not up to you how these individuals choose to make a difference.
    a. As human beings, they have a right to try to make a difference in non-reportorial ways.
    b. I don’t mind this kind of absolutist statement. I support it in theory. What I object to is your selective use of it (I’m thinking of Poynter’s approach to James O’Keefe, for instance) and its inappropriate application in this case. The ESPN hoodies are not obligated to cover the issue (In fact, ESPN discouraged it, only relenting on the avatar issue.) ESPN allowed the hoodie avatars as an expression of human sympathy. Again, this is your self-expression of what is allowable and what is not.

    4. You accuse the ESPN hoodies of slacktivism. I think it is incumbent upon you to at least talk to them to get some kind of sense about their motivations before disparaging them. Again, your self-expression.

    5. You say “Using LeBron James’ and other athletes’ show of solidarity as a jumping-off point..” acknowledging that the hoodie is a show of solidarity, yet you accuse the ESPN hoodies of making themselves part of the story by expressing their solidarity. Again, your self-expression.

    6. You say “She practiced journalism. And it’s so much more effective than pulling up the hood on your sweatshirt and taking a picture.” How do you know what is more effective? Among the other possibilities “A picture is worth a thousand words.”; the spread of hoodie avatars to an extent that will spur enough citizen concern that may finally have a voice that legislators will listen to more than NRA dollars; and, that the President may don a hoodie. Mr. Rivera has actually performed a service by spurring discussion of the issue. Though I value Ms. Hill’s article for its journalistic integrity, the tragic loss of a young man’s life should stay on the front burner by whatever means possible. Again, your self-expression creeps in. And it seems to be at odds with your contention in an earlier piece that “This is how stories are told now. They are told by people who care passionately, until we all care.” http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/making-sense-of-news/167660/trayvon-martin-story-a-study-in-the-new-tools-of-media-power-justice/

    7. You quote Mr. King as saying that the ESPN hoodies are “expressing their notions of tolerance around the case. We feel this is a unique expression” (something you also ignored above in your slacktivism allegation) you say in the very next paragraph “in the specific instance of this case, the hoodie is a visual expression of support for the parents of Trayvon and their petition for law enforcement to bring charges against the man who killed their son.” So, not matter what ESPN says and despite your not having asked the ESPN hoodies anything (and despite your colleague Mr. Sonderman not having mentioned that interpretation in his coverage), you say that their action represents what YOU say it is. Again, your self-expression.

    8. You say “King said he believes that most of the ESPN folks using the hoodie
    image were expressing broader support for the value of tolerance.
    Even if that’s the case, there’s no way for the audience to know
    which sentiment was being expressed by the hoodie, or the intent behind
    it.” At least that part of the audience that has read your piece and has been exposed to an interpretation that you yourself introduce. If you are to contend this, you are obligated to show some poll results that neutrally reflect your opinion that this interpretation exists on its own. Again, your self-expression.

    9. You say “ESPN’s policy that prohibits its commentators, anchors, reporters and
    analysts from making personal political statements…” Please provide documentation. From what I have been able to find, ESPN does not “prohibit” but “discourage” and wants staff to “avoid”. The version of ESPN’s Editorial Guidelines for Standards and Practices (in their Political Advocacy section) says “We should avoid active involvement of membership in any cause that could compromise our ability to report and edit fairly. ESPN discourages active participation in matters of public advocacy or controversy…”
    http://deadspin.com/5822727/espns-cringing-persnickety-condom+obsessed-standards-and-practices-manual-presented-unabridged

    10. You say “we were disheartened to see ESPN make an exception to the strongly rooted journalism value of independence”. This is something you inject into the story. Showing solidarity for tolerance and expressing human sympathy do not obviate a journalist’s independence. On the contrary, knowing what a journalist stands for allows his audience to understand his journalism better. That is why I avoid sets of journalistic principles that mention “balance” and rely mostly on the Prinicples of the Pew Center Project for Excellence in Journalism.
    http://www.journalism.org/resources/principles
    I would rather know where the journalist is coming from and then judge the independence of their work rather than have someone profess their independence and imbue journalism with all of the subtle instances of self-expression I’ve outlined above.
    http://www.journalism.org/resources/principles

    This selective invocation of a journalistic principle has happened before at Poynter. When Ian Murphy of the Buffalo Beast pretended to be David Koch in a phonecall to Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, you and the Society of Professional journalists vilified him, despite the fact that Poynter admits “the Buffalo Beast purports to be an alternative news site with
    heavily slanted views that are neither fair nor objective,” Yet Steve Myers of Poynter anoints James O’Keefe an “entrampment journalist” implying that the tactics he uses are subservient to the results of his investigation. The Society of Professional Journalists is completelly silent on the topic of Mr. O’Keefe. Poynter similarly rakes Mr. Daisey over the coals for his supposed desecration of journalism regarding Apple’s manufacturing practices in China despite the fact that he is a performer and not a journalist.

    Expanding on the Koch issue, followers of Poynter should search for “Koch” on their website. The sponsorship of Poynter by KochFacts.org appears many more times on their pages than references to the actual people will. And try to find anything critical (in the sense of skepticism, not negativism) about them.

  • Anonymous

    Ms. McBride

    You seem to take umbrage at the slighting of journalism that you perceive in the posting of the hoodie avatars at ESPN. You chide ESPN that “As a journalism organization, ESPN should do more work like Hill’s and less like the self-expression of several others.”

    I think less self-expression should start at home.
    1. You characterize ESPN’s actions as “bounc[ing] back and forth”, which implies numerous changes and is something you inject into the narrative. In fact, they made one: They told their “talent” that they should not do anything. Then, after discussion, they told them that hoodie avatars were allowed in this instance. Bouncing back and forth is an inaccuracy you inject into the story.

    2. You say “..the Florida teenager who was shot and killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood
    watch captain. That incident occurred as Martin was walking back to his
    father’s house in Sanford, Fla., to watch the tipoff of the NBA All-Star
    Game after a run to a convenience store for ice tea and candy.” The way you present the basic information injects self-expression into the facts of the story.
    a. You refer to the killer with the descriptive “neighborhood watch captain” (without including his name. I believe this takes sides on the citizen-protection/vigilante/executioner issue)  In addition, you create a picture in people’s minds the stereotype of a neighborhood watch captain and a hoodie.
    b. You do not include any descriptive terms of Mr. Martin. You could have easily said high-school student. I don’t think this is necessary, but if you are going to describe the killer, you should describe the victim of the killing.
    c. You include the irrelevant fact about the basketball game. If you’re going to include it, please be accurate that the killing happened during halftime.

    3. You say: “If you want to make a difference, explain the story, don’t become part of it.” It’s not up to you how these individuals choose to make a difference.
    a. As human beings, they have a right to try to make a difference in non-reportorial ways.
    b. I don’t mind this kind of absolutist statement. I support it in theory. What I object to is your selective use of it (I’m thinking of Poynter’s approach to James O’Keefe, for instance) and its inappropriate application in this case. The ESPN hoodies are not obligated to cover the issue (In fact, ESPN discouraged it, only relenting on the avatar issue.) ESPN allowed the hoodie avatars as an expression of human sympathy. Again, this is your self-expression of what is allowable and what is not.

    4. You accuse the ESPN hoodies of slacktivism. I think it is incumbent upon you to at least talk to them to get some kind of sense about their motivations before disparaging them. Again, your self-expression.

    5. You say “Using LeBron James’ and other athletes’ show of solidarity as a jumping-off point..” acknowledging that the hoodie is a show of solidarity, yet you accuse the ESPN hoodies of making themselves part of the story by expressing their solidarity. Again, your self-expression.

    6. You say “She practiced journalism. And it’s so much more effective than pulling up the hood on your sweatshirt and taking a picture.” How do you know what is more effective? Among the other possibilities “A picture is worth a thousand words.”; the spread of hoodie avatars to an extent that will spur enough citizen concern that may finally have a voice that legislators will listen to more than NRA dollars; and, that the President may don a hoodie. Mr. Rivera has actually performed a service by spurring discussion of the issue. Though I value Ms. Hill’s article for its journalistic integrity, the tragic loss of a young man’s life should stay on the front burner by whatever means possible. Again, your self-expression creeps in. And it seems to be at odds with your contention in an earlier piece that “This is how stories are told now. They are told by people who care passionately, until we all care.” http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/making-sense-of-news/167660/trayvon-martin-story-a-study-in-the-new-tools-of-media-power-justice/

    7. You quote Mr. King as saying that the ESPN hoodies are “expressing their notions of tolerance around the case. We feel this is a unique expression” (something you also ignored above in your slacktivism allegation) you say in the very next paragraph “in the specific instance of this case, the hoodie is a visual expression of support for the parents of Trayvon and their petition for law enforcement to bring charges against the man who killed their son.” So, not matter what ESPN says and despite your not having asked the ESPN hoodies anything (and despite your colleague Mr. Sonderman not having mentioned that interpretation in his coverage), you say that their action represents what YOU say it is. Again, your self-expression.

    8. You say “King said he believes that most of the ESPN folks using the hoodie
    image were expressing broader support for the value of tolerance.
    Even if that’s the case, there’s no way for the audience to know
    which sentiment was being expressed by the hoodie, or the intent behind
    it.” At least that part of the audience that has read your piece and has been exposed to an interpretation that you yourself introduce. If you are to contend this, you are obligated to show some poll results that neutrally reflect your opinion that this interpretation exists on its own. Again, your self-expression.

    9. You say “ESPN’s policy that prohibits its commentators, anchors, reporters and
    analysts from making personal political statements…” Please provide documentation. From what I have been able to find, ESPN does not “prohibit” but “discourage” and wants staff to “avoid”. The version of ESPN’s Editorial Guidelines for Standards and Practices (in their Political Advocacy section) says “We should avoid active involvement of membership in any cause that could compromise our ability to report and edit fairly. ESPN discourages active participation in matters of public advocacy or controversy…”
    http://deadspin.com/5822727/espns-cringing-persnickety-condom+obsessed-standards-and-practices-manual-presented-unabridged

    10. You say “we were disheartened to see ESPN make an exception to the strongly rooted journalism value of independence”. This is something you inject into the story. Showing solidarity for tolerance and expressing human sympathy do not obviate a journalist’s independence. On the contrary, knowing what a journalist stands for allows his audience to understand his journalism better. That is why I avoid sets of journalistic principles that mention “balance” and rely mostly on the Prinicples of the Pew Center Project for Excellence in Journalism.
    http://www.journalism.org/resources/principles
    I would rather know where the journalist is coming from and then judge the independence of their work rather than have someone profess their independence and imbue journalism with all of the subtle instances of self-expression I’ve outlined above.
    http://www.journalism.org/resources/principles

    This selective invocation of a journalistic principle has happened before at Poynter. When Ian Murphy of the Buffalo Beast pretended to be David Koch in a phonecall to Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, you and the Society of Professional journalists vilified him, despite the fact that Poynter admits “the Buffalo Beast purports to be an alternative news site with
    heavily slanted views that are neither fair nor objective,” Yet Steve Myers of Poynter anoints James O’Keefe an “entrampment journalist” implying that the tactics he uses are subservient to the results of his investigation. The Society of Professional Journalists is completelly silent on the topic of Mr. O’Keefe. Poynter similarly rakes Mr. Daisey over the coals for his supposed desecration of journalism regarding Apple’s manufacturing practices in China despite the fact that he is a performer and not a journalist.

    Expanding on the Koch issue, followers of Poynter should search for “Koch” on their website. The sponsorship of Poynter by KochFacts.org appears many more times on their pages than references to the actual people will. And try to find anything critical (in the sense of skepticism, not negativism) about them.

  • Anonymous

    The hoodie is becoming a huge symbol and I appreciate journalists showing they’re human and care about things.  It’s not just about tolerance.  Fashion has always been an important part of identity and identity is part of cultural survival.

    But, more importantly, sometimes society has to stand together and say enough is enough.  We definitely need more engaged reporters that understand the power of cultural expression rather than pseudo-objective analysts wagging their fingers and giving weak advice.

  • Anonymous

    Those who lend their names and image to a story without knowing as many facts as possible about the cause, are subject to the delayed fallout. This type of blind faith often defies rational explanation – though perhaps the NBA may be an exception to the case on point.

    Whether the “hoodie” was a well-thought out PR ploy or not, is simply an idea most PR professionals would likely consider not-well-veted, considering the number of CrimeStoppers “If you can identify, call…” photos that feature would-be criminal suspects in similar garb.

    Just more examples of why people should think, before they act…