ESPN and Poor Journalism

The View From the Hill | Gate 21

For those that might have missed it, ESPN’s Outside the Lines ran a feature story on Lane Kiffin this morning. In case you did miss it, take a moment and watch it.

Now, I think most of us can agree on the quality of that report in terms of a positive portrayal of Tennessee’s football coach and the confidence (outsiders will say arrogance, of course) he has in his plan. What he says about rivals’ fans and coaches at the very end might be my favorite part of the story – other than the parts with the lovely Layla.

In case you were not aware, am I currently a student at UT, entering my senior year. I am majoring in journalism/electronic media here in Knoxville, and as I get closer to having to go out and start working, I find myself watching all kinds of TV – the local news, SportsCenter, highlight shows, the Tonight Shows with Conan/Letterman – and noticing different specific journalistic and production aspects that most of you probably don’t, simply because I have a better understanding of it (I am studying and doing some of this stuff, after all).

Put another way, what lawvol is to law, I am to journalism – except much less of an expert, obviously.

Anyways, this is a really good piece from a journalistic point of view, and credit Wendi Nix for doing a good job. It covers the recent stories surrounding Coach Kiffin and the program very well, and gets added input from other sources – the Raiders, Ed Orgeron, Mike Hamilton, Layla, and USC head coach Pete Carroll. The piece is very visual, with clips from Kiffin’s various public appearances to shots at the spring game and spending time with his daughters at World’s Fair Park in downtown Knoxville.

However, the part in question (and where I find issue with ESPN) comes with just under two minutes left in the story. In Coach Kiffin’s office, you see him and assistant coach Eddie Gran speaking with a couple of recruits. It isn’t in the video linked above, but after the completion of the feature, Bob Ley, the host of the show and longtime ESPN personality, says that the clip is actually a secondary violation. Media members cannot witness the contact between a coach and a recruit.

Did ESPN set Tennessee and Lane Kiffin up for another violation?

There are a variety of theories about this, and maybe it’s not even that big of a deal. Perhaps ESPN threw that in there to create a story. Perhaps they showed somebody at UT the story and UT didn’t know or didn’t even care that there may have been a minor violation (it was Florida commit Lamarcus Joyner, so the Take that, Urban! possibility enhances that theory). We’re taught that when you interview someone, you don’t show them what you’re going to use or the final product, because they may want to change it and that may influence how you report a story (if I look like a moron in an interview, I’ll want to change that, right?). I have no idea if ESPN goes by that or how they do it, but that’s beside the point.

The problem I have with taking this story and throwing that little jab in at the end is this: the fundamental bottom line purpose of a journalist is to report the news. Present the necessary information in an accurate, unbiased way. Theoretically, you’re supposed to lose credibility if people find bias or inaccuracies in your reporting. It has to do with more or less being a service to the public and operating in their interest.

As a small disclaimer: no, I don’t watch any of the politics-heavy stations that skew stuff. And in today’s age, most people will find problems in the way you report or write a story just to find problems. Also, if a story disagrees with someone’s opinion, it’s automatically dismissed – that’s just the world we are living in. You can’t and you’re not gonna please everybody. Also, I think everyone is biased and personally it’s near impossible to hide that.

It just seems to me that the point of the piece was to show Tennessee football under Lane Kiffin in a more in-depth way. It was effort to see what Lane’s behavior – the comments, the violations, etc – really is a reflection of: his arrogance, his brilliance, or his inexperience. Why do you feel the need to throw in the bit about the violation? It just seems they felt the need to add the scene with Kiffin and the recruit for no other reason than to create another story.

ESPN could have taken a clip or used another one. For example, Nix mentions the number of recruits that visited Knoxville for the Orange/White Game. Why not show a shot of recruits standing on the sidelines or sitting in the stands watching the game? It’s not like the recruits don’t stick out on campus, could getting a shot of them on a tour or at the game been impossible for ESPN?

I’ll try another scenario. I’m a reporter doing an interview with Barack Obama. In this scenario, Obama has just made a couple of foolish remarks (insert G.W. Bush jokes here) and told some other world leaders they’re idiots. However, the focus of my story is how Obama is really a genius behind-the-scenes and a family man. However, I get a clip of him kicking Bo, the family dog, because Bo just kept digging holes in the White House flower beds.

As I’m putting the story together, I see this clip. Should I use it or not? It doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of my story, but man, the uproar I could create by putting it in there! OK, it’s a little extreme and probably an awful comparison, but I think it’s the same point.

It’s almost as if ESPN set Tennessee and Kiffin up by doing the story, and then finding this to make more out of it. I don’t think I would be alone in feeling that way.

I’m not saying this means ESPN is going to lose all of its credibility and viewers because they push and may have crossed the boundary of journalism ethics. I just think if you’re looking for examples of how not to be respected, professional institution focused on presenting information as clearly as possible, then this would qualify.

I’ll use another such example. Earlier this year Sports Illustrated reported Boston College DT B.J. Raji failed a drug test at the NFL Combine. Raji disputed that report, and it turned out was wrong. Think Raji will be willing to do any SI interviews anytime soon? Doubt it.

Maybe UT wanted it this way. Any publicity is good publicity seems to be the line of thinking over there. Maybe I’m wrong about ESPN. I’m sure they have their reasons for doing what they did. Maybe I’m being biased myself. Maybe I’m a moron. Maybe I’m making much ado about nothing. After all, it’s just a measly secondary violation…

Either way, playing some football games would render all this pretty moot. August can’t get here quick enough…

About Home Sweet Home... … to me.

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About the Author: I'm from Memphis but I'm now entering my third year at the University of Tennessee here in Knoxville. I am majoring in Journalism/Electronic Media and hope to go into sports broadcasting/writing/something like that. I'm a huge Vol fan and have been going to games for as long as I can remember. I started my on blog called "The View From The Hill" but moved here to Gate 21 for bigger and better things. In addition to my passion for Tennessee football and basketball, I enjoy watching the NFL and the NBA as well. Basically, sports are a big part of my life. >> Read more from this author

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