ESPN is frequently criticized around these parts. Much of the time—say, their coverage of Janay Palmer being abused by Ray Rice—that criticism is 100% justified. But other times it isn't, and the zeal to take shots at ESPN isn't accompanied by the appropriate understanding of why they do what they do. Today is a useful illustration of why ESPN does what they do.
Today is the trade deadline, and ESPN is getting its ass kicked. Fox's Ken Rosenthal and CBS's Jon Heyman beating them to stories is bad enough, but the organization has also been made to look like bumbling fools. First, former GM-turned-pundit, Jim Bowden ripped off and tweeted out a fake trade, and then had a Twitter meltdown. If that weren't embarrassing enough, Baseball Tonight apparently reported a trade from a fake account (that they didn't credit) and then issued a half-ass and confusing retraction.
The three common criticisms of ESPN and its reporters are that they a. needlessly "confirm" others' reports, b. don't credit others on TV and in print, usually crediting their own reporters and "media reports" instead, and c. will only manually retweet other reporters on twitter.
Before I dive in, I want to note that the point here isn't to absolve ESPN of this criticism or say that it isn't justified, but to try and explain why and how they operate.
If Ken Rosenthal or any other credible sports reporter tweets something, you and I have no way of knowing if it is actually true. Since those reporters get things right 99% of the time, we just assume they're right and they almost always are. But more important in our trusting the report is the fact that we have nothing at stake if it's wrong. Maybe we have to take back our fist pump at the news, but that's about it.
Not so for ESPN. If they run another reporters news across their platforms and it turns out to be wrong, they get (justifiably) criticized and their reputation takes a hit. To mitigate these circumstances, ESPN reporters confirm every single report they conceivably can before it is broadcast on ESPN airwaves. The ESPN news desk doesn't know who Ken Rosenthal's sources are; for all they know, he trusted the wrong person and went with something sketchy. But when Peter Gammons confirms the report, that same news desk can ask him about his sourcing and reporting, making sure they trust the information before running it.
That's why ESPN reporters confirm everything, and it also explains why they don't retweet others' reports. The latter policy might also be a "don't drive traffic to the competition" thing, but mostly its a "despite Twitter bio disclaimers, retweets are endorsements and I shouldn't endorse this information before confirming it." Which brings us to the notorious "media reports" tag, which is more complex than usually understood.
When SportsCenter reports some breaking news, they are almost always basing it on their own reporter's reporting, regardless of whether that reporter was the one to break the news in the first place. If Peter Gammons breaks something, SportsCenter is running his news. If Ken Rosenthal breaks something and Peter Gammons confirms it, SportsCenter is running Gammons' news. It is technically correct for the scroll to read, "according to ESPN sources..." because without those sources ESPN would never have run the report in the first place.
Where this gets stupid is ESPN's ridiculous refusal to assign credit for breaking the story to other reporters. Whether or not readers actually care, ESPN and its competitors still do. The elegant and accurate way for ESPN to handle this is to have the scroll read "According to ESPN sources, blah blah blah. Fox Sports first reported." It is an easy way for ESPN to have its cake and eat it too: reporting accurate, personally vetted information while also not being dicks.
ESPN's hesitance (or prudence) was on display at the beginning of L'affaire Sterling. TMZ reported the words on the tape around 1 AM eastern, and as of noon ESPN still had nothing on the subject. Ignorant reporters attempting media criticism laughed at the network, seemingly unaware that they were being conservative, not oblivious.
TMZ plays fast and loose with the traditional rules of journalism. This allows them break many stories others don't, but it also leads to them erroneously reporting Lil Wayne's death. ESPN wasn't about to go with TMZ's reporting: can you imagine the backlash if ESPN reported that Donald Sterling said,"It bothers me that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. Do you have to?" Not only would their credibility be shredded, the notoriously litigious Sterling would've had their lunch in court.
What made this different than most breaking news is that ESPN couldn't confirm it. It wasn't a trade where a reporter could get a GM on the horn in a minute. ESPN didn't have access to the tape, and even if they had, they would've needed to authenticate it. It was only after the NBA released a statement on the matter that ESPN began running the story, mostly referring to the NBA's statement.
ESPN's sourcing policies sometimes result in seemingly wacky situations, but they at least begin from a place of sensibleness. If you want to criticize them for confirming others' reports and saying "according to ESPN reports" on SportsCenter, go for it. If you want to criticize them for hilariously botching the baseball trade deadline, go for it. But realize that if you think the organization should prevent the latter, it needs to do the former.