Thursday, January 24, 2013

To get it first, to get it right....

... or to get it on camera.  That is the question.

And it all surrounds the bizarre case of Manti Te'o and the reporters who loved him.  Or at least loved his story.

According to the New York Times, ESPN had the story of the inspirational Notre Dame football player who loved, then lost, a girl who didn't exist --  but sat on it.  To get it right?  To get te'o on camera? Or was the decision more complicated?  In any event, while ESPN waited, Deadspin, a sports blog, posted.  Recriminations -- and ethical questions ensued:

For some, the debate within ESPN quickly gave way to regret and reflection. Three ESPN executives interviewed in recent days said they should have published on Jan. 16. The executives, who would not be identified because they did not want to second-guess their organization by name, said that the network’s focus on waiting until getting an interview with Te’o was a mistake. 

“If I had my druthers, we would have run with it,” one executive said. “We’ve had a bunch of discussions internally since then, and I don’t think it will happen this way again. I wonder sometimes if perfection is the enemy of the practical.” 

ESPN has faced considerable skepticism over the years about its ability to aggressively report on potentially embarrassing issues involving the leagues and universities with which it has an array of lucrative broadcast deals. Just days before learning that the Kekua story might be a hoax, ESPN televised Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game before the second-largest audience in cable television history. 

In this instance, there does not seem to be any obvious competing interest that might have blunted ESPN’s vigor in reporting the story. Except, perhaps, the value it attaches to having its subjects on camera. ESPN, as a journalistic matter, said it needed to talk to Te’o. But ESPN, as a competitive broadcaster, also dearly wanted that to happen on camera. Despite its broad expansion into radio, print and digital outlets, ESPN’s greatest strength is built on the power of video.
And so you have to wonder where the ethics play in: Was ESPN trying to get it right?  Trying to stay on the right side of a moneymaking contract?  Or prioritizing the flash -- in this case, an on-camera interview -- instead of the news?  The irony is that Katie Couric rather than ESPN was the one to get Te'o on camera. bk

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