ESPN changes sourcing policy, not much changes

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In the era of social media the ability to “break” news would appear many times to come down to ease of smart phone access and the speed at which one can type 140 characters. But in a time of increasing journalistic specialization (i.e. “insiders” vs. columnists vs. beat reporters vs. commentators) the ability to consistently break news is highly valued. As a result, proper attribution of breaking news is perhaps more important than ever.

ESPN has consistently been taken to task, including by its own ombudsman, for a lack of proper attribution and journalist transparency in its sourcing policy. In the past ESPN would attribute breaking news from outside outlets and individuals to “sources” or “media reports”, until an ESPN source reported the same information, then give that source proper attribution. This led many reporters and media commentators to accuse ESPN of “lying, cheating, and stealing”. Jay Glazer even commented that ESPN’s name for him was “sources”.

A couple months ago ESPN responded to this criticism by changing its attribution guidelines so as to prioritize and clarify the viewer experience. The hope for many is that this change in policy would end the attribution controversy. However, after a couple months this does not seem to be the case.

Under the new policy ESPN will give credit on breaking news to an outside source in the form, “First reported by…”. When ESPN confirms the story attribution changes to some form of “First reported by …, ESPN confirms”. While this may alleviate the problem of transparency, it does not really address attribution.

The effect on viewers, whether intentional or not, is to reduce non-ESPN sources to secondary status. Although confirmation of a story and its details is necessary, when that confirmation is seemingly always provided by one source the result is to delineate that source as superior. Except confirmation can in fact portray the opposite. Those who “break” news and get the news right are superior in that instance. And if Jay Glazer or Adrian Wojnarowski is consistently and correctly breaking news this makes them inherently superior to the ESPN sources who “confirm” the news.

ESPN’s new attribution policy is a step in the right direction, but it still misses the point.

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