JULY 2010 - ESPN, LeBron James’ “Decision” and Public Trust in Media

Lebron James playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

 

By: Chloe Clark

 

On Jul. 8 2010, ESPN aired a live announcement of LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. Leading up to James’ “decision,” he was at the point in his career where he fulfilled his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, making him a free agent and eligible to take up offers from other NBA teams. With James as a popular player in the league, there was heightened attention surrounding where he would sign next. Because of this highly anticipated news, James’ representatives at his agency, CAA Sports, saw an opportunity to turn the “decision” into a national televised exclusive on ESPN. ESPN is considered “The WorldWide Leader in Sports,” regularly awarded for outstanding sports journalism by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

 

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, “acting on the [television] exclusive would severely compromise the most basic understandings of journalistic integrity, most notably ‘maintaining a safe distance from those they cover [and] avoiding any tendency to stray into arrogance, elitism, or nihilism”. With those risks in mind, ESPN and James negotiated on ethical conditions that would allow the sports broadcasting powerhouse to air LeBron’s decision on live television. Of the conditions, the two parties agreed on three main things: Jim Gray, a broadcaster with no association to ESPN, would broadcast the event.  The network would allocate one hour of the broadcast to donate all ad revenue to James’ requested charity, the Boys & Girls Club of America, and that ESPN would produce the entire show and pay for all production costs. 

Though James ultimately only took less than 30 seconds to state his decision to play for the Miami Heat, the ESPN program, The Decision, lasted for about an hour to embellish the event, with an additional three hours of post and pre coverage. Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president for news, said the agreement to broadcast the decision was made without ESPN’s news division. Don Ohlmeyer, a sports journalist, stated “that was done for the appropriate reason of trying to separate church and state business decisions from the process of reporting news. The problem here was that the decision directly involved the presentation of news and ultimately had a damaging impact on our reputation as journalists” (Ohlmeyer, 2010). After James made his announcement, backlash immediately surfaced in response to how the event was covered. 

In Ohlmeye’s article,“The Decision Dilemma”, he stated The Decision was “an affront to humility, loyalty, moderation…and instead became a celebration of greed, ago, and excess.” Though journalism defines itself by proclaiming moral seriousness, ESPN lives with “an inherent conflict: how to cover athletes fairly while being in business with leagues” (Sandomir, 2006). ESPN’s issue regarding this case is regarding self interest, where sports journalists and ESPN disregards the fact that there was a conflict of interest. With this lack of differentiation, “ESPN clearly had violated basic tenets of journalism,” (Banagan, 2011, p. 161). ESPN’s editors and producers were not on the same page about principles that define the nature of journalism enterprise. 

Even after ESPN’s airing of The Decision, sports journalists and media critics continued to release negative coverage on James. Among comments, new sources labeled James as a traitor and a coward, while also exposing the decreased percentage of his popularity following The Decision. The way in which journalists covered James was “nostalgic at best and breathtakingly stupid at worst…hence a much more disconcerting matter is exactly how out of touch today’s sports journalists are with todays modern athlete. With the use of outdated terms like ‘loyalty’ on the modern athlete, sports journalists are demonstrating their own ignorance” (Banagan, 2011, p.163). 

This incident is significant in highlighting sports journalism’s obligation to fully understand the individuals it investigates while accurately narrating stories to their audience.  On the topic of moral ethics, the relationship between ESPN and James displays how self interest and self promotion both dictate and function off of one another. According to their positions, “each has an ethical stance whereby whatever laws or rules that night apply to other similar entities –athletes, in James’ case, journalistic institutions in ESPN’s– do not apply to them” (Banagan, 2011, p. 65). 

This incident raises questions surrounding the ethics of journalism. For example, ESPN did not consider how the coverage of the story could be perceived as biased or self-serving, yet still was able to advertise as a journalistic enterprise. On another note, “for the media at large in denouncing LeBron James for making a choice that James himself believes better his life, are sports journalists reporters of news or practitioners or patican arrogance?” (Banagan, 2011, p.164). 

Seven months after The Decision, ESPN announced it was outsourcing its ombudsman role to The Poynter Institute. The Poynter Institute is an independent, educational organization that works to hold journalistic organizations accountable and promote honest information. The Poynter Review Project was then used to examine ESPN’s practices in order to navigate the explanations and solutions regarding conflicts of interest and competing loyalties moving forward.

This diagram highlights the concerns of Oates and Pauley (2007), who explain that “the wall that is said to separate the business from the editorial function is quite evidently not in place for most sports journalism, which is foundationally promotional of itself and its corporate partners (the teams and leagues) in its coverage”. 

 

Diagram courtesy of The Sage Publication 

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1329878X1114000119?casa_token=Hfc5W7AVX 2oAAAAA:NW116jCgliSw-8mvvRTsVqjaLODp1TYNV0Ou090VtBIkuXG0wmyJMKnO_fzm v935huuRTCrwvqosZw

These quotes from notable news sources voice the ethical dilemmas that rose as a result of ESPN’s airing of The Decision. It raised a lot of questions as to ESPN’s journalistic caliber, thus having an effect on the public’s trust in this sports media source. 

 

Screenshot courtesy of ESPN 

https://www.espn.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=ohlmeyer_don&id=5397113

 

References 

Banagan, R. (2011). The Decision, a Case Study: Lebron James, Espn and Questions about us Sports Journalism Losing its Way. Media International Australia, 140(1), 157-167. doi:10.1177/1329878×1114000119 

Project for Excellence in Journalism 2010, ‘Principles of Journalism’, 

www.journalism.org/resources/ principles. Rhoden, W.C. 2010 

Ohlmeyer, D. 2010, ‘The “Decision” Dilemma’, espn.com, 17 July, 

www.sports.espn.go.com/espn/ print?id=53971113&type=story. 

Sandomir, R. 2006, ‘ABC Sports is Dead: Stand by for ESPN’, New York Times, 11 August, p. O2 

Oates, T.P. and Pauly, J. 2007, ‘Sports Journalism as Moral and Ethical Discourse’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 332–47.