ESPN has issued new political and election guidelines for its employees that, while allowing for political discussion on the network’s platforms, recommend connecting those comments to sports whenever possible. The new policies also provide separate guidelines for ESPN staffers working on news and those engaging in commentary.
The timing of the release of the election guidelines is a bit unusual — such guidelines are rarely released right after a presidential election; they’re usually updated near the beginning of a presidential campaign. But we are living in unique political times, which ESPN apparently recognized, which explains the revised guidelines for discussion of political and social issues.
“Given the intense interest in the most recent presidential election and the fact subsequent political and social discussions often intersected with the sports world, we found it to be an appropriate time to review our guidelines,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content and the chairman of the company’s internal Editorial Board, which drafted the new guidelines.
Stiegman said no single issue or incident led to the change, but Craig Bengtson, ESPN’s vice president and managing editor of newsgathering and reporting, said the nation’s tense political climate did play a role.
“We have the convergence of a politically charged environment and all these new technologies coming together at once,” he said. “Based on that, we wanted the policy to reflect the reality of the world today. There are people talking about politics in ways we have not seen before, and we’re not immune from that.”
Stiegman said the new election guidelines are no longer just targeted at presidential elections. “We simply extended our approach to covering presidential elections every four years to major elections, in general, believing all the same principles should apply,” Stiegman said.
So what’s different in the new policies? Let’s start with the Political and Social Issues guidelines. Its first line lays out ESPN’s challenge quite accurately:
“At ESPN, our reputation and credibility with viewers, readers and listeners are paramount. Related to political and social issues, our audiences should be confident our original reporting of news is not influenced by political pressures or personal agendas.”
As I wrote in November, not all ESPN consumers — or employees, for that matter — feel the company has lived up to this ideal. Stiegman said that the buzz around the topic of ESPN and politics — also written about by The New York Times, Awful Announcing, the Orlando Sentinel and many conservative sites criticizing ESPN’s perceived leftward tilt — didn’t play a significant role in the revision of the guidelines.
The two most notable changes from the Political Advocacy policy are the delineation of guidelines between news and commentary, and allowing for increased political discussion on ESPN platforms, as warranted and connected to sports. This isn’t a surprising development; it’s just new.
“We wanted to err on the side of transparency and trust with our reporting,” Stiegman said, “but also give our columnists and commentators the freedom to discuss topics relevant to those sports fans who visit our platforms, even if the issues are political or social in nature.”
Here are other notable points in the Political and Social Issues policy, with my thoughts:
“Original news reports should not include statements of support, opposition or partisanship related to any social issue, political position, candidate or office holder.”
This one seems straightforward and achievable, at least within ESPN’s platforms. The one place on ESPN in which you don’t see straight opinion is on the hard news side of the operation.
“Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in ‘hard’ news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders.”
The three key words here are “public-facing forum.” That expands this policy beyond ESPN’s borders and brings the Wild West of social media into play. In fact, later in the memo, it is said directly that the policy applies to “ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and other media.”
This is where the potential for problems exists. ESPN news reporters tweeting political opinions from their own social accounts would technically violate this policy. Again, hard news reporters are less likely to use social media for this purpose than commentators, but how effective this policy is will depend on how hard executives choose to look at social media. Let’s be honest: It’s not too hard to find ESPN employees tweeting political opinions. Yes, much of that activity does fall within the new guidelines, which also note that those who do publicly express political views could be reassigned when covering stories. But the propriety of other posts is a tad murkier.
“Outside of ‘hard’ news reporting, commentary related to political or social issues, candidates or office holders is appropriate on ESPN platforms consistent with these guidelines.”
This is meaningful because, unlike the company’s previous policy, it states that commentary on political and social issues is OK. The previous policy not only didn’t say that but also conveyed a tone that suggested that dipping into political waters carried more danger than reward. Put another way, the new policy has gone from “It’s dangerous out there, so probably best to stay home” to “It’s dangerous out there, so here are some tools to best keep you safe.”
“It’s a more positive, proactive stance,” Bengtson said. “If there’s a good reason to be discussing [politics], here’s how we can best help you do that to best help our audience.”
“The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports. This condition may vary for content appearing on platforms with broader editorial missions — such as The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and espnW. Other exceptions must be approved in advance by senior editorial management.”
The statement that topics should relate to sports is also new, though Stiegman left some wiggle room on that point. “We want to emphasize a direct connection to sports, understanding that’s the lens through which most fans view ESPN,” he said. “We also understand there may occasionally be exceptions that reference important, broader political topics. We just want to ensure those are thoughtful discussions, and meet the other criteria in the guidelines.”
Said Bengtson: “I don’t think people are turning us on to hear us talk about social and political issues. When we can make a connection with sports, we should do so and do it smartly.”
“The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, as warranted. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.”
What is a “personal attack” and what’s considered “inflammatory”? As with many journalistic policy questions, those are subjective. And in policies like these, that can lead to caution.
“There is always a layer of subjectivity in such areas,” Stiegman said. “Editors and producers will work with those offering opinions on these topics to ensure the dialogue and debate is thoughtful, respectful and as fair as possible.”
“All interviews, features, enterprise efforts or produced pieces involving candidates must first be approved by senior management. This is to ensure a coordinated and fair effort, and includes considerations as to location, interviewer, timing and format.”
The interesting note here is what was removed from the previous version of the policy, which said, “All interviews, features, enterprise efforts or produced pieces with a sports angle, including attempts at humor (emphasis mine) involving candidates must first be approved by senior management team.”
While this may seem to be in conflict with the guideline in the Political and Social Issues policy, I suspect the real reason it was deleted was to make sure employees understand that it applies to all political topics, not just those relating to sports.
It’ll be interesting to see whether this new policy has an impact. These changes appear to be designed to remind employees of ESPN’s invaluable and lucrative connection to sports while also acknowledging — rightfully, in my opinion — that sports, culture and politics overlap in ways that cannot be ignored. But, in the end, the effectiveness of policies is usually related to the intensity of the enforcement.