If There Is Anything Subtle About ESPN It's The Deception

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On Friday evening, a serious dustup developed regarding the sourcing of news and ESPN's crediting practices. Jay Glazer reported that Sean Payton would be signing an extension with the New Orleans Saints. Hot on his heels were Adam Schefter and Jason La Canfora. Awful Announcing has a good breakdown of what happened, but essentially, Jay Glazer cried foul—again—when ESPN cited "sources" rather than attributing a news story to him.

An impromptu debate between Glazer, Paul Pabst and ESPN news editor and coordinating producer Steve Peresman took place regarding ESPN's use of "sources" as attribution for breaking news. At this point, it is fair to ask "who cares?" The three reporters likely broke the story simultaneously and Glazer just has faster fingers. Who really cares who broke a story—the story is the story. The problem is in ESPN's subtle blurring of the line between breaking news and reporting it. It is the difference between connotation and denotation.


When you see something scrawl across ESPN's bottomline like "...Sean Payton agree in principle to extension, according to sources," you likely don't even consciously process the attribution. But there is a subconscious calculus performed that implies ESPN has uncovered the story itself through its own sources—people with whom it has personally communicated. If you even think about it for a second—which you never do when reading news—you realize this is exactly what your brain does. It's like a traffic signal—you don't actually think "green means go, yellow means caution" when you see it, you just react and continue on your way. If ESPN had written "...according to reports," nothing would change except, very quietly, your opinion of ESPN because you would be doing different math in the back of your mind.

It's not so much a story about ESPN stealing from a reporter as it is a story about the psychology of brand making. Adam Schefter and Jay Glazer are valuable because they are accurate and fast. That's why you and a ton of other people follow Glazer and Schefter on Twitter. The people who retweet them, though, have substantially less followers—there is inherent value in being first, otherwise you're just a middleman. It's part of the reason Schefter is an ESPN employee. But when reality is not good enough, there is always perception. If people think you are the best, that's really all that matters. When a story is attributed to "sources" it implies original reporting and triggers in the reader an acknowledgement of value and perpetuates ESPN's reputation as the worldwide leader in sports. If ESPN did not also break news would it still have that reputation?


It's possible that is a genuine concern and Friday's incident is indicative of a self-preservative policy on ESPN's part to systematically and subconsciously misrepresent its value to its viewers. At the very least, it is yet another clear example of ESPN's struggle to balance a desire to be both newspeople and entertainers.