It’s always a sticky wicket for sports networks who operate as extensions of leagues and conferences when negative news strikes. With the editorial direction of the network coming from in-house, official league networks are faced with difficult decisions when it comes to covering bad news.
A) Do you ignore it altogether and let the news networks handle it?
B) Do you acknowledge the story with a passing mention so you can say you “covered” it?
C) Do you dive in with substantial coverage to prove your journalistic bonafides?
For these networks, there is no easy answer. Big Ten Network dealt with its fair share of criticism for backing away from coverage of the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State scandal. If you wanted news and analysis about the last NHL Lockout, the league network wasn’t the place to find it.
NFL Network is now encountering the same scrutiny over their coverage (or lack thereof) of the Aaron Hernandez verdict today. The former Patriots TE was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Odin Lloyd and now faces life behind bars without the possibility of parole. They seemingly chose Option B above. NFL Network joined ESPN and CNN in devoting live coverage to the verdict, but then the league network cut away to previously scheduled taped programming. Folks certainly took note.
How is NFL Network not showing anything related to the Hernandez trial?
— Mitch Rupert (@Mitch_Rupert) April 15, 2015
— Bill Enright (@BillEnright) April 15, 2015
Curious. CNN and ESPN still on Aaron Hernandez verdict. NFL Network? Talking Packers. Not even a mention in ticket or on-screen headlines.
— RoMustGo (@RoMustGo) April 15, 2015
So there's a verdict in the Hernandez case and NFL Network is showing a taped program.
— TTSO Chris (@TTSO_Chris) April 15, 2015
Furthermore, while ESPN continued with live coverage throughout the morning, NFL Network continued with their taped programming.
ESPN still going live with Aaron Hernandez verdict coverage.
NFL Network airing a taped program on the Top 10 Pittsburgh Steelers.
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) April 15, 2015
Is it within NFL Network’s prerogative to avoid detailed commentary or live coverage for the Hernandez story? The conviction of a former AFC champion tight end on a first degree murder charge is a massive NFL story, as seen by the wall-to-wall coverage elsewhere. Over on NFL.com, the league website has the Hernandez conviction as the top headline, but beneath featured stories on the draft and the reveal of the new Browns uniforms. Over at CNN.com it’s still the featured headline as of 4 PM ET.
So is the Hernandez story one suitable for NFL Network? Journalistically, one would say that it’s a no-brainer. This is one of the biggest and most shocking news stories to ever hit the NFL. To provide limited coverage to the Hernandez case and verdict gives the appearance that the league is trying to sweep it under the rug, an impossible feat. As ugly and tragic as it is, it’s a story that simply must be covered substantially. (You can make the same argument about Darren Sharper’s crimes.) It’s at least more valuable in a news and information sense than the Top 10 Pittsburgh Steelers of all-time.
But on the other hand, is detailed coverage of Hernandez’s conviction part of NFL Network’s mission statement? Hernandez has been out of the league for some time, even though he was a key contributor for the Patriots and an active player when he was arrested. Perhaps NFLN sees themselves as providing an escape for football fans away from the negative stories like Hernandez, Rice, Peterson, etc. Perhaps they see themselves as simply focusing their attention on the stories that have an impact on the field. Perhaps they want to leave the scrutiny and analysis to other media entities that aren’t the official league network.
Either way, it’s an incredibly awkward scenario for any league network. But if these league networks choose to go in the latter direction and either ignore scandal or just provide a passing mention, it calls the purpose of their news operations as a whole into serious question.
If NFL Network isn’t going to cover every facet of the league, both positive and negative, then it tells the viewer that they’re only going to find a certain perspective on major stories. It also tells the viewer that they’re only going to get sustained coverage of carefully selected stories that are helpful to the league. That’s not necessarily a right or wrong choice for a league network to make, but it should be one that viewers and fans are aware of when encountering how each one chooses to do news.