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ESPN's watchdogs, the Poynter Institute, offer a self-review

The Poynter Review Project, a process in which a group of Poynter faculty review ESPN content across all platforms and publicly comment on ESPN's efforts, will conclude this November after an 18-month tenure.

Because Poynter's role as ESPN's de-facto ombudsman has been a topic of discussion of many readers here, we reached out to Poynter President Dr. Karen B. Dunlap for an update on the partnership. Dunlap suggested we also interview Stephen Buckley, the dean of faculty at The Poynter Institute, who has worked on the more day-to-day issues of the Review Project. The interviews with Dunlap (May 30) and Buckley (June 12) were done on separate occasions. Their answers below have been transcribed and are presented without comment:

SI.com: How would you characterize the impact of the Poynter Review project, which, in the words of both ESPN and Poynter, is to serve as an independent auditor of ESPN's media outlets?

Dunlap: I think the project has been successful and you defined it well, and it has been successful on that basis. We have indeed been an independent voice, and I think we have been useful to ESPN as they examine their standards and practices.

Buckley: I think ESPN itself has made it clear that we have had an impact on how it thinks about its work and on some of its polices. I think ultimately the impact that this Project has had probably can't be measured, in that we are not involved in the myriad conversations that take place on various fronts, whether it's conversations about SportsCenter or the website or the magazine. We are not involved in those conversations, so we don't know how many times Poynter's name is evoked or this project is evoked. So while ESPN has said we have had an impact, I think ultimately the impact is probably measured in ways that are hidden from you and me.

SI.com: As a general rule, do you believe Poynter has addressed the issues ESPN readers and viewers are most interested in?

Dunlap: I would say sometimes the thing we found most useful were not the things that they were most interested in. And that might be a way that we are differentiated from the others [ombudsmen's] also.

Buckley: This is an issue that we have talked about throughout the 15 months that we have done this work. Our job is to both pay attention to the audience and go beyond the audience. For example, I can think of a number of pieces we have done in which it was clear from the mailbag or from other sources that ESPN's audiences -- they weren't asking us directly to address an issue -- but it was clear that we would be doing a service, and it would be part of our job if we did. On the other hand nobody was saying, "Can you guys do some pieces about John Sawatsky and how ESPN does its interviews?" We felt like, yes, we should pay attention to the audience but we ought to go beyond that.

SI.com: How has Poynter distinguished itself from previous ombudsman George Solomon, LeAnne Schreiber and Don Ohlmeyer?

Dunlap: I think we have been successful in both depth and in quick hits. I'm not sure how much we have distinguished ourselves from the others, but I think we have been successful at that. I think we have done a good job of going in-depth in some topics and fleshing out what are the ethical concerns there and what are the practices. And then, in some other instances, the quick notes have been useful on topics, sometimes funny, but very helpful

SI.com: Let me read you something written by John Carvalho, who is an associate professor of journalism at Auburn University. I'm sure you've read this. In describing the relationship between ESPN and the Poynter Review Project, Carvalho wrote: "In practice, the arrangement seems to be having little effect on how ESPN conducts its conflict-of-interest-filled daily business." How would you respond?

Dunlap: I think that goes back to what we discussed earlier about what effect we are having on ESPN. I think it's clear that we are having an effect on ESPN, and probably clearest to ESPN. It might not be as clear to others looking from the outside, and I think also the kind of work we are doing will be measured over time. So there are some changes in policy now, and I think there are some things that will happen outside of us as they go forward. I don't think that criticism is valid.

Buckley: Well, one of the things that we said is ESPN is a web of conflicts of interest. We have said that more than once in the pieces that we have written. I think where I would disagree with the professor is that is I think we have been able to compel, urge, exhort ESPN to think much more deeply and carefully about those conflicts. Again, I don't want to sound defensive, but I think the professor is asking us to prove a negative in that we don't have any sense of the things that ESPN does not do or does more thoughtfully because of the work the Project has done.

SI.com: How and why are topics selected?

Dunlap: The topics come about through conversation with Stephen, who is the Dean of Poynter, and who acts as an internal editor. It's often the writers come up with the ideas and they discuss it with him. It moves from there.

Buckley: As a longtime reporter and editor, you know there is no formula really. [Writers] Jason [Fry] and Kelly [McBride] typically come to me with ideas. We run through them. We talk about two or three things, and these are in no particular order. One issue is timeliness. Another issue is how big a deal is this, and we are partial to issues that illuminate some bigger point.

The question I'm always asking Kelly and Jason is, "What does the issue say about ESPN's standards, and did ESPN hold itself to its own high standards. Because I think ultimately that is our job and that's what we are to do. I don't mean that in a scolding or mean to sound like a school marm when I say that. But that is ultimately what we have been asked to do and what we have agreed to do. So that gives you some sense of it. They come up with the ideas and those are the kinds of questions and issues we talk about as we hash them out.

SI.com: How have you been useful to ESPN?

Dunlap: I think they have said that the best way is for them to define it, and they have made some comments about the value of this Project to them. It was mentioned in the guest column response by [ESPN.com editor] Patrick Steigman to the Auburn University professor column in the Sports Business Journal. Patrick named some areas, and they can flesh that out more. But we have heard from them in some specific areas in which we have been useful to them in thinking about their standards.

SI.com: Poynter and ESPN decided on an 18-month term at the start of this project. Do you believe that is a proper length of time for an ombudsman?

Dunlap: From the beginning, we talked about how that was a good and reasonable time period. We are past one year and have several months to go and it still seems like a good period. We have learned a lot and there is still some good work for us to do.

SI.com: Kelly McBride and Regina McCombs were listed as those who would write the Review pieces but the project lately has essentially become the domain of Jason Fry. Why?

Dunlap: When we started there were two other faculty members listed besides Kelly who would be involved, and as the year progressed, their cards filled fairly quickly. Regina does a lot of teaching internationally on multimedia and she needed to continue that. Butch Ward was listed and he's done a lot on leadership and he needed to continue that. So we brought in Jason Fry, and Jason Fry has done some of the shorter pieces, more blog pieces. Not always but very often Kelly has gone more in-depth. We thought that was a useful and reasonable way of approaching it.

SI.com: The project has done 10 columns since January 1, 2012. Is that a proper number of columns for a ombudsman-like role? Are you publishing the right amount of pieces?

Dunlap: I think you are talking about long and short columns, right? I would not think that is unreasonable. I think if there were concerns, they would have been raised. We have been more concerned with the quality. One thing is we have often gone more in-depth but it does not seem unreasonable to me, and I have not been approached about any problems with that.

Buckley: Since we started, we actually have done 28 pieces. So while I understand you have focused on those 10, I think that 28 pieces over 15 months is actually spot on. I am very comfortable with that and I am also very comfortable with some of the issues we have taken on have been fairly complex or have taken longer to report out or write. So I'm fine with that number. I know you are focused on the 10. I am focused on the 28.

SI.com: The single question I get asked the most from readers about Poynter Review project is this: Craig James left ESPN with some unresolved issues including the assertion by some that he used an outside PR firm to impact news coverage at ESPN. Why has, or why did Poynter fail to address the Craig James situation and his role at the network after saying it would in a column on Sept. 2, 2011.

Dunlap: You would need to talk to Stephen about that.

Buckley: I think that's a fair question, and if we promised we were going to write something, we should have. I think the audience asks a fair question, especially given that we did say we were going to. If we made a promise, we should have kept it.

SI.com: Do you have any plans, or should you have any plans to address the Sarah Phillips situation, a freelancer who allegedly used her position at ESPN to bilk people out of services?

Buckley: We don't have any plans to address the Sarah Phillips case specifically or alone. We do have plans to address some of the issues connected with that situation. If it sounds like I am being vague, it's because I am.

SI.com: Why does Poynter not reveal how much ESPN is paying it when one of the Poynter's tenets is transparency in journalism? This was something brought up by Professor Carvalho and I wanted to give you the opportunity to respond to that.

Dunlap: That's the question that has surprised me. As I indicated when we talked before, Poynter regularly undertakes projects like this with organizations and we never give the details of the business and business side of it. I don't see a particular reason why we should here.

SI.com: Every day on ESPN's various platforms, you can find someone who says something provocative, particularly on ESPN Radio or its First Take television show. ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd recently called New Orleans the most dangerous big city in America, a fact disproved by statistics. Is this something Poynter should address? Should the Review Project get into the day-to day chatter that some viewers might perceive as reckless?

Dunlap: This might be the area where I sense some disconnect with some of the audience. My sense is that the audience expects more on the day to day, but our Review has gone more into deeper issues. It's role with [athletic] conferences. The role of an organization that is reporting on something in which you have a vested interest. The nature of our approach to ethics has been more of the deeper issues where you hope to make a long term impact. Indeed, there are frequent as I see as a viewer, provocative comments and I think it is fair to say we have not tried to chase those and address those regularly.

Buckley: I think that's a fair question, and the short answer is no. We can't address every provocative statement that somebody on ESPN makes -- that in and of itself would be a full-time job. These are folks who are paid to be provocative and we recognize that. We recognize that Colin Cowherd, Stephen A. Smith and others perhaps are more provocative than most. But I think you used the word reckless. Unless they say something that really strikes us as egregiously reckless we are very -- I don't want to say cautious -- but we are very selective about pursuing those statements.

SI.com: Is there a specific place or issue in the future where you believe the Review Project will really have a long term impact on ESPN's editorial?

Dunlap: I think we are seeing and hearing that it is having an effect on matters of a conflict of interest, and matters of endorsement of products, and some of the pieces we wrote about writing about certain events. I think it having an impact on those things. Now whether you say in effect some situations lead to long term and major changes raises a different question. How big a change are you expected to have? But I think they can document some specific areas where they have made changes in policy.

Buckley: I would like to think that we will have impact in several areas but I think the area we are particularly interested is where their journalism intersects with their business interests. We identified that conflict of interest or those conflicts of interests early on. We have had a couple of pieces at least that have gone at that. If I had to pick, I would say that is it with the hope that in the long run we have helped ESPN be more mindful of those conflicts, and hopefully avoid some of them.

SI.com: How often have you heard from ESPN officials during this project. At your level, are you involved with those conversations?

Dunlap: The regular contacts are done below me, but periodically I'll either seek them out, our paths will cross, or in some other way we will address things. But my concern overall is how is this working from your perspective. So there are times when I have called and there are times where I have seen people in other situations and asked about it. I would check on the big picture. The day to day is done by Stephen on a different level.

SI.com: In terms of the big picture, how would you characterize those conversations regarding how ESPN perceives Pointer's impact?

Dunlap: I won't go into the details, but early in the process, as we were settling in, they communicated some things that they wished we did differently. We made some adjustments and since then I have not heard much critically. We have continued to have regular discussions underneath me and there is a constant temperature taking of 'What do you think." So I haven't gotten any reports since the early stages of any concerns.

SI.com: (Laughs) I'm going to take a big guess and say you won't be telling me what ESPN communicated as far as the change in direction was?

Dunlap: No, I don't think I will (laughs).

SI.com: Would Poynter consider in the future serving in the same role for another sports organization?

Dunlap: We would discuss that but my inclination would be yes; a lot of good has come out of it. I would say that in my conversations and some speeches I've made in which I have mentioned this relationship, I have said the one thing we have learned is sports fans are definitely not quiet or shy people. They express themselves fully and vigorously. Their energy and expression is sort of different from what I am seeing about a certain disconnect in the direction that we have taken in terms of going in-depth on it.

But I appreciate the vigor of their expression. That means that we get roughed up a little more than we might have in other areas. But this has been good. I definitely would be interested in doing a project similar to this with other organizations. Sports is a great topic. I am a sports fan, and we have covered sports here prior to this Project and we will continue to do so. So I would be interested in that kind of thing. And I think we are doing something worthwhile for the Institute and I hope for the audience.

SI.com: Do you pay attention to how Poynter's columns have been received, whether the reaction is on social media or comments on ESPN.com? How has your work been perceived?

Dunlap: Most of the time I don't directly read the comments but I find out about the chatter through various ways. For instance, Carvallo's comments was passed along. I always find it interesting and I am engaged by it. I try to keep a fairly good ear on what we are hearing.

Buckley: We do pay attention in the sense that it is almost impossible not to pay attention in this day and age given social media. I want to be really precise about the phrase 'pay attention'. We don't ignore the chatter out there but we also try to be careful not to react to that. So, yes, we pay attention, but we try not to allow reactions to our work, whether negative or positive, to affect the work itself.

One of the things that we realized early on was that you just can't please everyone. You just can't. No matter what you write, there is somebody or some group or some cluster of fans who will be unhappy. And that just comes with the territory. This is a tough enough, challenging enough project, without factoring in public opinion and allowing that to sway us. That would make this job impossible.

Just to clarify: If there is a ton of clamor around a particular issue where folks aren't telling us what we should say, but it is clear that some issue or something that has happened on the air or ESPN's website or in the magazine, where clearly folks are saying, "Gosh, we would really like to hear from the Poynter Review Project," that has the potential to have an impact on us. But that is different from our wanting to be more critical or less critical of ESPN simply because of public opinion.

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