When Patrick Patterson, a highly recruited high school basketball star from Huntington, W.Va., announced last week he had decided to go to Kentucky, ESPN didn’t air his news conference. The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader reported that’s because ESPN “offered” to air it if Patterson told the network his news 30 minutes earlier — giving it a scoop — but he declined.
I’ve heard of operations like the National Enquirer offering payment for an exclusive but I never would have thought that it would be done, or even considered for that matter, by a sports news organization with the reputation of ESPN.
You may say that what ESPN was offering was not money in exchange for the scoop and you’d be right. It’s the perception that’s the problem. The offer of airtime does carry value and presents ethical concerns.
As long as there’s been competitive media outlets there’s been a battle to be first, to get the news out before anyone else. Without that competition there would be no need to provide any investigative reporting. I don’t need to give any examples as to how solid, ethical investigative reporting has made an impact in our lives.
What was ESPN thinking when it approached Patterson? Why was his announcement considered worthy of this unethical behavior? Unless you are a college basketball nut, how many people had even heard of him? Officials at ESPN deny that they offered Patterson the deal. Let’s hope so.
Respectable news organizations thrive by building solid, ethical relationships with sources. Operations start down a slippery slope and jeopardize their respectability when they even consider offering anything to a source in exchange for information. There is no need, or long-term benefit, by going down that road.