“Trying to cover these businesses can present a natural conflict, and ESPN’s doing it on a big level with a lot of money at stake,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics-group leader at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for professional journalists.
ESPN executives acknowledged potential conflict but said their reporters are told to aggressively cover leagues, teams and players.
Officials also cite the network’s investigative series “Outside the Lines” and the fact that many of ESPN’s reporters come from the ranks of traditional journalism.
“On one hand, we’re the largest business partner of sports organizations, teams and so forth in the world,” said Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, himself a former editor for the Boston Globe. “On the other hand, I think we are one of the most aggressive news-gathering entities in the sports landscape. Some might look at that and say those things don’t seem compatible, and maybe if you were inventing it right now, you’d think about it differently.”
ESPN was criticized this year for airing a reality series that chronicled the daily routine of San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds.
Airing the “Bonds on Bonds” show made ESPN a business partner with the controversial slugger at a time when he also was under intense scrutiny for accusations of steroid use and for his pursuit of the all-time home run record.
“That was a bad judgment,” said Christopher Hanson, a professor of journalism ethics at the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “They sort of created their own conflict of interest by doing that.”
Mr. Doria said the network avoided ethical problems with the “Bonds on Bonds” series by forbidding reporting on any information gathered during the production of the show.
“There’s a pretty strong ethic to not allow the business side to interfere with the editorial side,” Mr. Doria said. “This is how it evolved for 27 years now, and I think we manage it pretty well.”
Battling to be the best
ESPN is the most dominant sports network on television, but, as the emergence of the new college networks shows, the battle for programming rights is ultracompetitive and ultraexpensive.
ESPN’s deal with the National Football League, for example, is worth $1.1 billion each year — just to televise one regular-season game per week.
The rights to NASCAR were so expensive that ESPN could afford only the final 17 races on the 38-event schedule, plus Busch Series events.
Some analysts predict the company’s operating income will be flat next year as it takes on the first year of the new massive contracts.