Leaked Memo: ESPN Urges Talent To Avoid Political Comments (UPDATED)

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The following memo was just sent to ESPN talent—a designation that covers on-air personalities as well as certain contract employees—regarding how the network wishes to approach political coverage.

2016 is an election year. There was a time when sports coverage and political coverage rarely intersected. There was also a time when pop culture and entertainment coverage rarely intersected with sports coverage. Clearly times are changing. Recently the Editorial Board reevaluated our Presidential election coverage. We have made a few adjustments to the coverage guidelines. Please take a moment to review the changes. It is important that we are all on the same page so we can continue to smartly serve sports fans. Thank you in advance.

Presidential Election Coverage

At ESPN, our reputation and credibility with viewers, readers and listeners are of paramount concern. Our audiences should be confident that our news decisions are not influenced by political pressures, or by any personal interests. In order to meet these objectives, the following editorial guidelines regarding political coverage should be observed across all ESPN platforms:


+ All interviews, features, enterprise efforts or produced pieces with a sports angle, including attempts at humor, involving candidates must first be approved by senior management team. This is to ensure a coordinated and fair effort, and includes location, interviewer, timing and format. Criteria should include: Is this appropriate for our audience, are we in position to report with authority, and what impact will the coverage have? Approved content should be communicated in advance across all editorial platforms, ensuring consistency, eliminating redundancy and promoting fairness.

+ Should a candidate appear at or attend a live event on our air (e.g. MLB game, college football game, etc.), announcers should avoid any political commentary or prolonged references. A brief mention accompanying video of the candidate is appropriate. If approved by senior news managers, interviews may be conducted live or taped, depending on circumstance.

+ As it relates to news assignments, feature stories and profiles on candidates or their campaigns, we should seek interesting and compelling stories that represent the points of view and experiences of a broad range of candidates on sports-related issues (exceptions will be made for entities such as FiveThirtyEight.com, which covers politics as a regular beat).

+ We should refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or “drive-by” comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns (including but not limited to on platforms such as Twitter or other social media). Approved commentaries on sports-specific issues, or seeking responses from candidates on relevant news issues, are appropriate. However perceived endorsements should be avoided. (In others cases, guidelines, acceptable commentary and political advocacy should prevail).

+ In general, ESPN platforms fall outside the equal-time provisions that apply to television and radio over-the-air broadcasters. Even so, all platforms should still make appropriate efforts to offer fairness in tone, tenor and time/space allowed for a broad range of candidates. If interviews or other material involving candidates are used on ABC or ESPN Radio, they may trigger various equal time obligations in an election. In all such circumstances, the Legal Department should be consulted.

Equal-Time Rule

The essence of the equal-time rule is that if a U.S. radio or television broadcast station offers coverage of one political candidate, it may be required to provide an equivalent opportunity to any opposing political candidates upon request. This means, for example, that if a station gives one free minute to a candidate in the prime time, it must do the same for his or her opponents, and if a station sells one candidate a 30-second non-preemptible spot in a certain day part in a certain week at a certain price, it must be prepared to do the same for an opposing candidate who requests an equal opportunity. However, there are four general exceptions to the coverage rule: if the air-time was 1) in a documentary; 2) a bona fide news interview; 3) in a regularly scheduled newscast; or 4) an on-the-spot news event.

This all seems fairly standard, but it’s not hard to imagine the “We should refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or ‘drive-by’ comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns (including but not limited to on platforms such as Twitter or other social media)” part getting someone into trouble as election season heats up. Curt Schilling definitely has some takes on Hilary Clinton that he’s just dying to tweet out.


Update (9:02 p.m.): ESPN PR points out that these guidelines were posted on their corporate blog two weeks ago. Which is a very fair point, though because nobody reads ESPN’s corporate blog, talent didn’t learn about these guidelines until the memo was sent today.

h/t SJK