ESPN does some awfully good work. The network’s documentaries are usually outstanding. Outside the Lines has been excellent for years on current issues. ESPN has a solid stable of commentators and analysts. And the sports network has done some good investigative work the past couple decades. But the “Worldwide Leader’s” coverage of the Penn State scandal has been shockingly weak from day one.

When the story broke on the grand jury report charging former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky with 40 criminal counts of molesting eight young boys, as well as charging the school’s athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz with perjury, ESPN did little more than run a little scroll on the story alongside college football scores. The network focused on game coverage and highlights. The lack of real journalistic coverage of the unfolding Penn St. story didn’t improve much on Monday and Tuesday. It began to seem like ESPN was more interested in protecting one of their biggest assets, college football, than seriously covering one of the biggest sports stories in years.

Finally, by Wednesday, they seemed to grasp the gravity and enormity of the story. Then Wednesday evening they totally bombed on coverage of Penn State’s Board of Trustees meeting and press conference, and the riot that followed. Clay Travis pretty well nailed ESPN’s ineptitude and conveyed the frustration of those of us foolish enough to think that ESPN would be the best place to turn for this breaking story. (See the story)

Jason Fry and Kelly McBride also did an excellent job outlining where ESPN dropped the ball on this story for the Poynter Review Project. (See the story.)

“With the biggest staff of sports journalists in the world, ESPN should have been leading the charge to ask tough questions and shed the light on this scandal,” wrote Fry and McBride. “Instead, it was the tiny Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. out in front of the journalism pack.” Later in their article they threw this shot at ESPN, “We would expect the instincts of a 24-hour broadcast newsroom to be quicker.”

Even ESPN executive Norby Williamson, the company’s executive vice president of production admitted that ESPN’s coverage of the Penn State story was far from stellar.

“I think we missed the story a little bit, “said Williamson.

On Wednesday night, when the riot broke out after it was announced that long-time Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired, along with the school’s president Graham Spanier, it was CNN who had the compelling live video coverage while ESPN offered us audio reports and misplaced, sometimes clueless, reporters.

Ultimately, ESPN’s poor job covering the Penn State scandal brings to the forefront the serious issue of the major conflicts of interest in reporting that exist when a media conglomerate like ESPN is asked to cover a news story involving one of their key business assets (in this case college football).

Can ESPN, or any large sports media conglomerate with significant investments in the sports they cover, report fairly and thoroughly on controversial sports issues that impact the business side of their company?

Based on ESPN’s coverage of the Penn State story this week the answer is a resounding “No.”


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