By:
October 14, 2021

Adam Schefter covers the National Football League for ESPN. He’s considered one of the best reporters in the business, consistently breaking stories on the league, its teams and player transactions.

But now he’s caught up in the wake of the Jon Gruden email controversy and at the center of a journalism ethics question.

Gruden, as you know by now, has left his job as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders because of multiple emails he wrote using racist, anti-gay and misogynistic language. The emails were discovered as a part of the NFL’s investigation into a toxic work environment with the Washington Football Team.

One of the top executives in Washington at the time was Bruce Allen. And now a 2011 email between Schefter and Allen — which came to light because of a lawsuit involving Washington owner Dan Snyder — is raising concerns about Schefter’s reporting.

Back in 2011, Schefter was working on a story for ESPN about an NFL lockout. As first reported by The Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer and Nathan Fenno, Schefter sent the story to Allen to look over before it was published. Schefter, perhaps facetiously but cringeworthy nonetheless, referred to Allen as “Mr. Editor” and wrote, “Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked. Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust. Plan to file this to espn about 6 am. …”

There’s no other way to put this: To share an unpublished story with a source before it runs — and to solicit suggestions on that story — is way over the line journalistically. It cannot happen. In this case, Allen was the executive vice president/general manager of an NFL team that was in a collective bargaining dispute with the players.

In a statement to Farmer and Fenno, ESPN said, “Without sharing all the specifics of the reporter’s process for a story from 10 years ago during the NFL lockout, we believe that nothing is more important to Adam and ESPN than providing fans the most accurate, fair and complete story.”

But, in this case, that accuracy and fairness is being filtered through a source and someone who has a stake in the story.

Several hours after this story broke, Schefter admitted he should not have shown his unpublished story to Allen.

Through ESPN’s public relations department, Schefter put out a statement that said: “Fair questions are being asked about my reporting approach on an NFL lockout story from 10 years ago. Just to clarify, it’s common practice to verify facts of a story with sources before you publish in order to be as accurate as possible. In this case, I took the rare step of sending the full story in advance because of the complex nature of the collective bargaining talks. It was a step too far and, looking back, I shouldn’t have done it. The criticism being levied is fair. With that said, I want to make this perfectly clear: in no way did I, or would I, cede editorial control or hand over final say about a story to anyone, ever.”

CNN’s Kerry Flynn reported that Schefter, before his statement, went on “The John Kincade Show” on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia and said, “I’ve learned for a long time in this business not to discuss sources, or the process, or how stories are done. But I would just say that it’s a common practice to run information past sources. And in this particular case, during a labor intensive lockout that was a complicated subject that was new to understand. I took the extra rare step to run information past one of the people that I was talking to. You know, it was an important story to fans; a host of others, and that’s the situation.”

Schefter’s excuse here seems to be: Hey, it was a really complicated story and I wanted to be sure everything in it was accurate.

It’s good that Schefter admitted his mistake, but this is still a good topic to discuss.

Asking a source to clarify something is, of course, not only OK, but good journalism. That should be (and can be) done without showing the source what you wrote.

Now, would it be all right to share just a sentence or brief passage to make sure specific language about a convoluted subject is accurate? Perhaps, but only in very rare, last-resort cases and only to confirm facts, not editorial tone. It’s also OK, in many cases, to verbally tell a source what you’re working on and allow them to share their thoughts, preferably on the record.

But a reporter should never share the entire story and should never invite the source to offer something be “added, changed or tweaked,” as Schefter put it.

ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio wrote, “It’s a fascinating glimpse into the sausage-making process as it relates to NFL news. And it’s definitely not normal for reporters to send entire stories to a source for a review, a fact-check, a proofread, or whatever.”

Many journalists weighed in. The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill, who worked at ESPN with Schefter, tweeted, “I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years now. I’ve never let a source proofread, preview or edit any story. Majority of journalists I know have never done this either. That is a huge journalistic NO-NO. Young journalists, that is not how it’s done. Ever.”

On Twitter, New York Times sports reporter Kevin Draper called it a “blatantly unethical journalistic practice.”

Writing for Defector, Barry Petchesky wrote a story with the headline “Adam Schefter Is Pathetic And ESPN Is Gutless.” Petchesky goes over why Schefter was wrong to share the story with Allen, adding, “While I assure you this is not normal practice, and is indeed right up there as one of the basic tenets of journalism along with ‘spell people’s names correctly’ and ‘don’t make (stuff) up,’ and that all reporters know not to do it (both innately and from having it drilled into their heads by competent and ethical instructors, colleagues, and bosses), there is no reason a normal person would ever spend a minute thinking about it. But it’s not some arcane, ivory-tower, j-school ethical holdover; it’s common sense. Every source for every story is by definition an interested party, and their interest is in the story being reported in a certain way.”

In the end, it’s a bad look for Schefter, but at least he recognizes and acknowledges he crossed the line.

Yeesh, this Gruden story is something, isn’t it? That leads me to …

More thoughts about Gruden …

Facebook’s new policy protects journalists

(zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx)

Facebook will now count journalists and activists as “involuntary public figures,” meaning those groups will have increased protection against harassment and bullying.

Reuters’ Elizabeth Culliford wrote, “The social media company, which allows more critical commentary of public figures than of private individuals, is changing its approach on the harassment of journalists and “human rights defenders,” who it says are in the public eye due to their work rather than their public personas.”

Culliford also wrote, “Facebook also differentiates between public figures and private individuals in the protections it affords around online discussion: for instance, users are generally allowed to call for the death of a celebrity in discussions on the platform, as long as they do not tag or directly mention the celebrity. They cannot call for the death of a private individual, or now a journalist, under Facebook’s policies.”

In announcing the new policy, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, wrote, “We also recognize that becoming a public figure isn’t always a choice, and that this fame can increase the risk of bullying and harassment — particularly if the person comes from an underrepresented community, including women, people of color or the LGBTQ community. Consistent with the commitments made in our corporate human rights policy, we’ll now offer more protections for public figures like journalists and human rights defenders who have become famous involuntarily or because of their work.”

Facebook also is increasing its protections for public figures. Davis wrote, “Public figures shouldn’t be subjected to degrading or sexualized attacks.”

Co-creator of ‘The Daily’ leaving The New York Times

Theo Balcomb — the founding producer and co-creator of “The Daily,” the highly successful and excellent news podcast from The New York Times — is leaving the Times after five years. She announced on Twitter that she wants “to dive into tape, hunker down with stories, edit and produce beautiful things.”

The Verge’s Ashley Carman wrote, “A quick summary of Balcomb’s very busy audio life: She started at NPR as an intern and rose the ranks to become the youngest supervising producer on ‘All Things Considered.’ She joined the Times in 2016 as senior producer for a soon-to-be-launched, unnamed show, aka ‘The Daily.’ Of course, ‘The Daily’ went on to be a smashing success that reaches millions of people per day. In 2019, she was promoted to executive producer of ‘The Daily’ and News, where she is today.”

Speaking of the Times

The Times has announced its Newsroom Culture and Careers Department. In a memo to staff, Times deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan wrote, “We pledged earlier this year that we would invest in our workplace culture and in helping you develop your career. The Times, which has set the standard for the industry in so many areas, will now lead in creating a nurturing, enriching and equitable environment for our staff to do its best work. Our central aim is to demystify how people thrive and get ahead at The Times, and help more people do so.”

Ryan also wrote, “We believe newsroom staffers should not have to struggle to get career advice and guidance, build new skills or gain new experiences. … Our mission is to create the most effective, accessible and well-utilized career and culture department in the industry.”

Check out Ryan’s memo if you’re interested in seeing the staff for the new department.

Most interesting interviews

Foreign service officer Tina Onufer, a victim of Havana Syndrome. (Courtesy: NBC News)

NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell interviewed three of the original Havana Syndrome victims, who are now speaking out publicly for the first time. Some of the interviews ran on Wednesday night’s “NBC Nightly News” and more will run today on the “Today” show on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

Foreign services officer Tina Onufer told Mitchell she was washing dishes in 2017 when, “all of a sudden, with no reason or explanation, I felt like I was being struck with something. It was nothing tangible. It was just a sensation. And it was an overwhelming sense of anxiety, pressure completely inexplicable, and then pain that I have never felt before in my life or hadn’t at that point. Mostly in my head and in my eyes. … It’s like I’ve been seized by some invisible hand and I couldn’t move.”

The State Department’s Kate Husband talked about the neurological impact of the attack, telling Mitchell, “The way the doctor boiled it down for me when I was trying to understand how does it all work together, and he said, ‘Well, it’s like you aged, you know, 20, 25 years all at once. And it’s without any chance to get used to it.’”

Her husband, Doug Ferguson, said, “For me, one of the reasons why I wanted to do this interview was to put it out there. Like these are just normal folks from Michigan who are out there serving their country, and this thing happened. And I want the viewers to understand that, that this is actually happening. You know, we’re not making this up, but this happened to real people, people who live amongst you, you see, at the grocery store when we’re on leave back in the states. So that, to me, it’s really important. People should just understand, this is real. This happened, this is happening.”

It’s a fascinating story and good work by Mitchell. You can read more about it in this story by Mitchell, Ken Dilanian and Brenda Breslauer.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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