NEW YORK – ESPN’s news-making coverage this past week on baseball MVP Ryan Braun and another alleged case of sexual abuse by a sports figure are a boost and, no doubt, relief to the network’s journalists after a tough month.
Critics roughed up the sports network for its handling of abuse stories involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and ex-Syracuse basketball assistant Bernie Fine. Some in sports wonder whether a network that pays millions of dollars in rights fees to televise sports events can critically report controversial sports stories. ESPN says it can.
“There is some impetus to do more enterprise and investigative reporting,” said Vince Doria, ESPN’s vice president and director of news. “That’s an important area for the company.”
ESPN broke the story on Dec. 10 that Milwaukee Brewers slugger and reigning National League MVP Braun had tested positive for a substance banned by baseball and is fighting to avoid a 50-game suspension.
A day earlier, ESPN’s Tom Farrey reported that two former youth basketball players accused ex-Amateur Athletic Union president Robert “Bobby” Dodd of molesting them as children. One of the accusers, Ralph West, said he came to ESPN after reading the grand jury allegations against Sandusky and sought out Farrey because of a book the reporter wrote on amateur athletics.
Most in-depth or investigative reporting on ESPN is featured on either the daily show “Outside the Lines,” particularly its weekend edition, or the occasional series “E:60,” which focuses on longer-form, off-the-news storytelling.
The network just hired Don Van Atta Jr., a former New York Times investigative reporter. Among its other prominent reporters are Mark Fainaru-Wada, who wrote “Game of Shadows” about steroid charges against Barry Bonds; former New York Daily News reporter T.J. Quinn; and Paula Lavigne, who has looked into health issues in sports. Ten journalists are specifically assigned to ESPN’s enterprise unit, with another four attached to “E:60.”
Both breaking news and investigative reporting efforts were faulted in ESPN’s response to the Sandusky and Fine stories.
In the days after the lurid grand jury report that made Sandusky a household name, ESPN was criticized for being slow to grasp the story’s significance and follow up on its threads. Sara Ganim, a reporter from the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., was widely regarded as the toughest and most aggressive reporter on the story.
It took three days before ESPN “finally seemed consistently to ask the right questions and find the appropriate moral outrage,” wrote Jason Fry and Kelly McBride of the journalism think tank the Poynter Institute. Both are working as ESPN ombudsmen. Some of ESPN’s early coverage, such as a blog post that discussed how the scandal would affect Penn State’s football recruiting, seemed ill-timed considering the more important questions about damaged youths, they noted.
“This was a story that I don’t think anyone terribly distinguished themselves on, with the exception of Sara Ganim,” Doria said.
He believes perceptions rather than reality fueled some of the impressions. For example, ESPN had several reporters on the scene, but seemed flatfooted when it didn’t have a truck able to feed live pictures when students spontaneously protested head coach Joe Paterno’s firing, in contrast to some cable news networks, he said.
ESPN was first on the air with a story about molestation allegations against Syracuse’s Fine.
As the story developed, more people wondered why ESPN wasn’t reporting on the charges eight years earlier.
The network in 2003 investigated a former Syracuse ball boy’s claims against Fine. Like the Syracuse Post Standard, which was looking into the same charges, the story wasn’t reported at the time because no one backed up the charges. Both organizations went public in 2011 when a second person told his story of alleged abuse. It also came to light that ESPN had for years a tape of Fine’s wife discussing the alleged abuse with the first accuser, although with a lack of specificity.
Critics, including the ombudsmen, suggested ESPN gave up pursuing the initial story too quickly – a decision that could have serious implications if alleged abuse continued in the intervening years.
“We do not believe that ESPN acted with gross negligence,” Fry and McBride wrote, “but rather a lack of persistence.”
Doria concedes ESPN acted cautiously following the Fine story, primarily because of the seriousness of the allegations and the damage that could be done if the ball boy’s story proved to be untrue. Whether more could have been done with the audio recording is a fair discussion to have, he said.
“We get a lot of scrutiny,” he said. “Some of it is fair scrutiny, thoughtful scrutiny, well-intentioned scrutiny. Some of it, not so much. I would ask them to look at our record.”
As the “big dog” in sports media, ESPN expects to get a lot of attention over how it handles stories, Doria said.