Journalism sometimes sees media entities acting like monoliths, with each outlet having its preferred angle on a story and ignoring whatever doesn’t fit with that. That was part of what made ESPN’s Sunday Outside The Lines piece on U.S. women’s national team keeper Hope Solo’s 2014 domestic violence arrest so noteworthy, as the piece directly referenced and contradicted what Solo told ABC’s Good Morning America in February and what she told ESPNw’s Allison Glock for a piece published this week. As Sports Illustrated‘s Grant Wahl noted, ESPN is presenting both sides of the case. That’s a frequently-cited journalism ideal, but in practice, it often seems to lead to one side being focused on and the other side’s comments included as disclaimers.
It’s even more rare to see an outlet do something that looks critically at its earlier pieces, and that’s perhaps what’s really impressive here. If something new does come up that changes the narrative, the earlier reporting is often ignored or swept under the rug. Moreover, ESPN has often been blasted for trying to minimize in-house criticism of its own reporting or personalities; consider Keith Law’s 2014 suspension for defending evolution against Curt Schilling, or Bill Simmons’ 2013 suspension for bashing First Take. Thus, it’s particularly interesting to see ESPN air a story that, at the very least, sheds some doubt on the earlier pieces the network (and its corporate sibling ABC) ran, and a story that explicitly points out those discrepancies. It’s also a story that could have been nixed thanks to Bristol’s prominent conflicts of interest, and one that could have been buried the way OTL sometimes has been. It’s very positive for the state of journalism at ESPN to see that OTL was allowed to do this story, and to do it in a way that didn’t paint some of its corporate siblings in the best light.
What’s also notable is that the OTL piece doesn’t merely make this a she-said, she-said case. If it only included the comments of alleged victim Teresa Obert (Solo’s half-sister), that would still be valuable, as Obert hadn’t thoroughly presented her side of the story before, while Solo had told her side numerous times in high-profile appearances such as the one on Good Morning America.
What really elevates the OTL piece is the digging done by famed investigative reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada (known for his coverage of the BALCO scandal, the NFL concussion crisis and many other big stories), which turned up detailed police reports, sworn depositions from Obert and her son, interviews with the Kirkland Police Department’s public information officer, and a transcript of the 911 call from Obert’s home, plus information on the lack of investigation U.S. Soccer did on the solo case. That documented evidence adds another layer to this story, particularly the reports from police officers that include Solo’s slurred speech, the odour of alcohol on her breath, the “obvious injuries” to Obert and her son, the officers’ conclusion that Solo was “the primary aggressor” and their descriptions of her behaviour towards them once arrested. Solo’s lawyer argues in the piece that this was thanks to Solo suffering a concussion, so both sides are represented there as well (even if Solo herself declined comment for the OTL piece), but the details in Fainaru-Wada’s piece cast substantial doubt on the victim narrative Solo advanced on Good Morning America and in the ESPNw story.
Does that mean ESPN and ABC were wrong in their handling of their initial pieces? Maybe, but only maybe. At the time, Solo’s side of the story was the obtainable one; Obert hadn’t spoken extensively on the case until talking to Fainaru-Wada (although she did briefly comment for the ESPNw piece). That’s certainly her right, but it does make it harder to tell both sides of the story, especially if the police reports weren’t available then. There are certainly some things in the ABC and ESPNw pieces that stand out in the light of this new information; in particular, on Good Morning America, Solo’s narrative of herself as victim wasn’t really questioned that much, and the ESPNw piece reads as very favourable to Solo despite its inclusion of some comments from Obert and her lawyer.
It’s particularly interesting that the ESPNw piece includes a partial 911 call transcript and references police reports, though; does that mean Glock had access to what Fainaru dug up? If so, the primary soft-focus arc of the ESPNw story seems a little odd, as does its lack of responses from Solo about some of the more disturbing specific allegations in the police reports. Perhaps Glock asked those questions and they weren’t answered, but if so, a note to that effect should have been included. If ESPNw had that information and didn’t use it, though, that doesn’t completely invalidate their coverage (at least they discuss the allegations against Solo, rather than writing them off with “Save it for Judge Judy” the way Fox did), but it does make their piece a little more questionable.
On the whole, though, the handling of the Solo situation is a bright spot for ESPN’s journalism record, and one that indicates that they can sometimes rise above the network’s frequent conflicts of interest. ESPN isn’t a direct rightsholder for this Women’s World Cup, which may have made it easier for them to run this. The next step forward for the network is to prove that they can run these types of stories consistently for rightsholders as well, without the controversy we saw with League of Denial.
ESPN’s access to the U.S. women’s team and to Solo in particular has been very valuable for them, especially for ESPNw. It would not be surprising at all to see that access suffer in light of this OTL piece, and it’s promising that ESPN management decided to run it anyway. It’s also reassuring to see some ESPN-on-ESPN and ESPN-on-ABC criticism allowed when the circumstances are right; Fainaru-Wada’s piece doesn’t directly attack anything in those pieces, but it certainly raises questions about why those pieces didn’t go at Solo harder. To see ESPN spotlighting its earlier reporting even when that may not paint the network in the most favourable light is positive as well. Outside The Lines did ESPN proud here, and that should further illustrate the program’s value to the company. Their coverage may not have bolstered ESPN’s earlier pieces, but their story illustrated that ESPN can still do great journalism, even when that comes into conflict with other pieces from the company.