In the wake of high-profile controversies such as Jemele Hill’s tweets about President Donald Trump as a white supremacist (which drew ire from the White House and Trump himself) and tweets about a boycott of NFL sponsors (which actually got her suspended), ESPN has revised their 2011 social media policy, and done so in ways that are going to mark a drastic change for their reporters if fully enforced. ESPN president John Skipper’s memo about the policy is posted on ESPN Front Row here, and the whole policy is posted here. (Here is the 2011 one for reference.)
The new policy, which has Undefeated editor-in-chief Kevin Merida as its principal author (as per ESPN’s release), has some notable updates for commentators like Hill as well. It includes lines like “Do nothing that would undercut your colleagues’ work or embroil the company in unwanted controversy,” and wants all social media commentary on political or social issues to be approved by editors or producers. But the biggest hard-and-fast changes appear to be for those involved in hard news, who are now being told to avoid stances on political and social issues completely. And interestingly enough, the new policy repeats a part of the 2011 policy that wasn’t often enforced: to not break news on social platforms.
From the new policy:
+ Do not break news on social platforms. We want sto serve fans in the social sphere, but the first priority is to ESPN news and information efforts. Public news (i.e. announced in news conferences) can be distributed without vetting. However, sourced or proprietary news must be vetted by the Universal News Desk. Once reported on an ESPN platform, that news can (and should) be distributed on social platforms.
From the old policy:
+Do not break news on Twitter. We want to serve fans in the social sphere, but the first priority is to ESPN news and information efforts. Public news (i.e. announced in news conferences) can be distributed without vetting. However, sourced or proprietary news must be vetted by the TV or Digital news desks. Once reported on an ESPN platform, that news can (and should) be distributed on Twitter and other social sites.
If fully enforced, that rule would mean big changes. The “do not break news on social platforms” rule in particular would seemingly put ESPN at a massive disadvantage against competitors, as vetting news through a desk and posting it on an ESPN platform takes time. And that would seemingly hurt the likes of Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski, who break a ton of news on Twitter, but also have competitors in the space.
But Awful Announcing has learned that the “do not break news on social platforms” rule is still unlikely to apply to ESPN’s top newsgatherers, but will instead apply to others at the company. ESPN spokesperson Mike Soltys tweeted that this isn’t actually a policy change, so the status quo may prevail of Schefter and Wojnarowski filing their content and tweeting it out without waiting for editor approval, and that’s certainly positive for ESPN’s breaking news efforts:
For clarity, policy on breaking news unchanged; top reporters make their content available to ESPN’s news desk at the same time they tweet.
— Mike Soltys (@espnmikes) November 2, 2017
A notable element of the new policy that wasn’t in the old one is telling reporters to avoid commentary on social or political issues. From the new policy:
+ 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 guidelines for commentary are also new, and are different:
+ The subject matter should merit our audience’s interests, and be worthy of our time, space and resources; we should be in position to discuss the issue with authority and be factually accurate.
+ The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports, unless otherwise approved by senior editorial management. This condition may vary for content appearing on platforms with broader editorial missions – such as The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and espnW.
+ Commentaries on relevant sports-related issues are appropriate, but we should refrain from overt partisanship or endorsement of particular candidates, politicians or political parties.
+ 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.
+ Communication with producers and editors must take place prior to commentary on any political or social issues to manage volume and ensure a fair and effective presentation.
What will this actually mean? Well, it again will depend on the enforcement, but if applied to the letter of the law, this would mean that anyone involved with ESPN’s hard news side would have to avoid any tweets on “political or social issues,” and it will be interesting to see what those are defined as.
And it also would mean that commentators like Hill would have to “communicate with producers and editors” before tweeting about anything that could be considered “a political or social issue.” That could be a big change, and could dramatically reduce the volume of ESPN personalities opining on anything at all related to social issues. But these guidelines are far more restrictive than those of many media outlets, and they might spark some blowback in the ranks if ESPN tries to fully enforce them. We’ll see how this plays out.