Saturday, June 29, 2013

What are Commentary Boundaries at ESPN?

Jason Collins' coming-out party was a historic and controversial story, feel-good for some, an abomination for others and an "uncomfortable conversation" on "Outside the Lines" that still resonates in ESPN conference rooms and in the ombudsman's mailbag. 

More than one ESPN manager told me it was "a learning experience" and then couldn't come up with what had been learned. How about this: The tricky trifecta of religion, race and sexuality exposed not only the fault-lines in "OTL's" preparation but the inconsistent performance of ESPN journalism in general. The old story won't die because it brings up too many unresolved questions that we will be addressing in my scheduled 18 months as ESPN's fifth ombudsman. 

• What are the boundaries of sports talk, and on which shows? 

• What is the distinction between a reporter and a commentator? The lines seem to blur sometimes. 

• How can ESPN balance the varying sensibilities of its audience? There are people who want the network to provide a safe haven from the real world. But Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights, tells me that he is finding in his research a "hunger for more challenging news." These people want information, they want to understand their world, including the world of their games. 

• ESPN's resources are substantial, and as it continues to hire more experienced journalists, will it match their ambitions with a company will to give them reporting and commentating room? 

• If it does, there will be another, more complex balancing act. What happens when ESPN's "partners" -- the teams, conferences, leagues whose games it airs and analyzes -- are made uncomfortable by tough reporting? 


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