ESPN public editor Jim Brady wrote a column addressing issues related to social media. He doesn’t offer weighty prescriptions beyond patience and common sense. While patience is almost always a virtue, the problems outlets have with social media emerge in gray areas where common sense is not clear.
Common sense from a media outlet perspective has been the Chinese Wall approach. Neutrality at all costs. Keep journalists away from partisan politics on social media and in real life. But, Draconian “stay in your lane” policies on social media don’t and won’t work.
There is a professional incentive for media members to be political. Sports media, in its essence, has become sports talk radio. Advancement, as our Top 30 most powerful sports media talents list testifies, almost always comes through packaging analysis and opinion, whether insightful or “interesting.” Everyone must have opinions.
A strong social media presence is imperative to packaging analysis and opinion. It’s what gets you noticed, gets your foot in the door, and gets you leeway once inside. Social media may be more important than content produced. What generates discussion on social media is blunt, emotive opinion-making.
Opinions must be about what people are talking about. Nuts-and-bolts sports discussion is often boring or beyond the average fan. It’s not what people are discussing at their metaphorical water coolers. The real and far more impactful soap opera right now is in politics. The most resonant sports stories are going to be ones that intersect with politics.
Aside from the professional incentive, there is a personal compulsion. Politics is now conflated with morality and basic notions of truth and fact. It’s not clear where the line is or how one stays human without crossing that at some point. Throw in the fact that this is social media. People, media included, react instantaneously and emotionally, without performing rigorous cost-benefit analyses.
Whether implicit or explicit, sports media members will continue coming out with charged, political opinions. That’s not a battle outlets can win. Those opinions will create stressful situations.
ESPN determining where its own line is when a personality expresses an extreme opinion is relatively straightforward. But, there are situations far more complex. Let’s say one ESPNer Instagrams critical thoughts about Immigration ban protests. Another ESPNer, determining “the genie is out of the bottle,” argues her position is the “height of privilege” citing his own family’s experience.
Both, yes, are entitled to their opinions. But, what is the correct course (ESPN let it go) when not acting may be as contentious as acting? This kerfuffle, it should be noted, happened after ESPN explicitly stepped in with a memo to avoid heated conflicts about said issue.
Such conflicts are only going to become more frequent and more difficult to manage. The sports industry isn’t moving away from opinion. Politics only continues to become more heated, with brands themselves now expected to have a voice. We are only beginning to assess the extent to which social media affects human behavior.