My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana examines the Janay Rice story on ESPN.com.
From the column:
It is interesting to note that ESPN turned to a competitor to help justify using the as-told-to format for Jemele Hill’sinterview with Janay Rice that ran Friday on ESPN.com.
In an in-house ESPN Front Row piece written by high-ranking network PR exec Josh Krulewitz, Vince Doria, the senior vice-president and director of news, noted as-told-to stories aren’t “uncommon.”
“A notable recent example was LeBron James announcing his return to Cleveland in Sports Illustrated,” Doria said.
Then in an interview conducted via email with Richard Deitsch of SI.com, Hill wrote:
“The partnership was unusual for me because I’d never done it before, but it’s not really unusual in these times. Sports Illustrated has published as-told-to pieces with Jason Collins and LeBron James, for example.”
Well, if it’s good enough for SI, it must be good enough for ESPN. The folks in Bristol owe you one.
Indeed, the recent Sports Illustrated precedents likely helped convince ESPN to relinquish some of its editorial control to Rice. There’s little question that her first-person piece is powerful and highly compelling. It undoubtedly generated immense traffic for ESPN.com during a holiday weekend filled with turkey and football.
Yet as is often the case, there is a price to be paid. It came in the form of howls that ESPN compromised its journalistic integrity with its arrangement with Rice.
Howard Kurtz, Fox News: “Approval — really? How is that different from a press release? Don’t public figures have to hire P.R. firms for this sort of thing?
“And this is the hilarious part: ‘No questions were off limits.’ What does it matter, if Janay Rice can cut out anything she doesn’t like? I don’t know what this piece was, but it wasn’t journalism.”
David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun: “In effect what ESPN did is surrender editorial control to Janay and Ray Rice and their attorneys and publicists. ESPN handed over its many platforms to Janay and Ray Rice and their handlers and loaned out one of their reporters to record and help Janay tell her story ‘in her own words.’ Wow. I hope it was worth it in page views and plays.”
Erik Wemple, Washington Post: “Now back to the question at hand, which is whether ESPN cheated its audience by allowing this sweetheart interview deal. The answer is, probably. Thanks to the deal’s terms, we won’t know what revelations didn’t get passed along.”
Joe Concha, Mediaite.com: “This is no longer a tell-all discussion, it’s simple dictation…with Hill morphing from journalist to stenographer.”
Ouch. Concha’s allegation that Hill was as unengaged as a stenographer is a low blow. Hill is a solid journalist. Clearly, an interview did take place with Rice answering Hill’s questions.
The argument even could be made that the as-told-to format actually produced a more compelling piece. Readers got a better idea of who Janay Rice is and how this experience impacted her. A conventional news story likely wouldn’t have detailed her background or how she and Ray Rice went through couple’s therapy prior to getting married. The format humanized Janay Rice as someone who doesn’t want to be known just for being a victim of domestic violence.
Link to the rest of the column.