Covering ESPN: A Recap

This semester, I had the opportunity to track ESPN for my multimedia storytelling course, analyzing the rhetorical and stylistic choices the online and television sports syndicate makes in its coverage of national and international sporting events.

From their use of alternative storytelling to the impact of their subsections and sister programs, I’ve developed a deeper, professional appreciation for ESPN beyond seeing it as just a regular stop for sports journalism. There are multiple standouts of their style that particularly struck me.

Alternative Mediums

ESPN, through its more than 30-year existence, has operated mainly on a visual platform, first opening as a cable television station in 1979. Since then, they’ve expanded to digital mediums, operating a website and social media accounts across various platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.

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In keeping with recent times, ESPN has embraced “alternative storytelling” methods by incorporating tweets and Twitter Moments, Facebook and Instagram Live videos, Snapchat, and writing styles like listicles and interactives in their reporting.

ESPN has fun with its reporting, and this is reflected strongly and frequently in the ways they move beyond traditional hard news or feature articles and attempt to be hip and interesting to reach out to a younger generation of sports fans (more on this point later).

FiveThirtyEight and Data Journalism

ESPN is the parent company of FiveThirtyEight, an analysis and data journalism website run by Nate Silver, who initially rose to prominence with frighteningly-correct Super Bowl predictions.

FiveThirtyEight covers events and issues ranging from March Madness to presidential elections, tracks events in real-time with probability and projections, and later looks back on results versus their own predictions.

Data and analytics are a crucial part of sports journalism. ERA, plus/minus — statistics are found across all sports. Hosting a data journalism site that is not solely limited to sports broadens ESPN’s range of potential readers as well as bolsters their credibility as a leader in the world of journalism.

Demographics

One conclusion I have drawn that particularly speaks to me is that ESPN does not take itself seriously — an observation to be interpreted in the best way possible. It is not stuffy, it does not play into too much sensation or drama, and it loves to make jokes about every player, every team, every moment and every game.

ESPN’s website and much of the programming on their flagship channel are mostly reflective of the wants of an older generation of sports fans: people (typically and stereotypically men) only watching or reading for information on their favorite teams.

On social media, however, gifs, memes, and other content like the video linked above represent ESPN’s appeal to a younger generation of sports fans, one that strives to have fun and report beyond boring facts and figures (especially in times as stressful as draft season).

Moving Forward

On Wed. April 26, ESPN announced that it would lay off nearly 100 on-air “personalities,” firing anchors and commentators on their various television programs in order to adjust their budget in a period of low subscription rate and an apparent shift in demand from visual to digital journalism.

The moment coincides well with my own personal departure from this academic look at ESPN’s journalism techniques. To adapt to new technological and cultural demands, broadcast and publication companies must be aware of trends, of the new ways people seek to absorb media, and to stay on top off these developments — or risk losing profits. ESPN is slipping, and these developments argue that they’re struggling to adjust to the rapidly-approaching future.

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ESPN and Breaking News

When Tony Romo left the Cowboys as a free agent, ESPN and other sport journalism news sites predicted the routes he could take, as quarterback at different teams — but few expected him to go the way he did.

In appropriate fashion, ESPN broke the news early Tues. April 4 that Tony Romo would leave professional football and become a “color commentator” at CBS, Fox or NBC.

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According to sources close to Romo and as published on ESPN, the decision to leave profession sports came down to Romo’s health, and multiple injuries sustained through the past several seasons.

ESPN covered the news with a hard-news, breaking-news angle and followed up later in the morning with a feature piece on Romo’s career.

Breaking news in sports is not uncommon: March brings free-agent and trade agreements, April so far has seen the end of the college basketball season and the Tar Heels as National Champions. But these can, more or less, be predicted. ESPN covers breaking news with a slow-burning focus, supplementing their articles with embedded tweets, video, and hyperlinks to other articles.

 

Alternative Storytelling with Sports

ESPN’s flagship site and program “SportsCenter” typically posts more “alternative” storytelling, through the use of Vine, YouTube clips, and podcasts.

One popular form of multimedia reporting on ESPN is the interactive listicle, which they have used for things like season previews and features about college mascots.

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One recent example is their coverage about the Cubs preseason, and the site’s predictions about the future of the 2016 World Series-winning team. ESPN staff uses a variety of graphs to display strikeout rates and even comparisons between this year’s Cubs team and the 1999 Yankees’ team.

Other articles have used animation, gifs , and short clips to add to the visual content of the story, such as this article about the Boston Red Sox’ outfielders and their post-win dances.

Alternative storytelling provides unique ways of presenting and consuming data that otherwise would be too cut-and-dry to publish in simple charts, as well as a way to consolidate different potential angles for an op-ed into one single editorial. Alternative storytelling can also be used in these same ways for hard-news or single-perspective articles, but ESPN maximizes on its effectiveness in feature stories and listicles like the one presented here.

 

 

 

Weekend Update

This weekend, two of my friends from home drove up and visited for St. Patrick’s Day, so myself and another mutual friend of ours (also a BU student) took them around the city to some of our favorite places, namely Faneuil Hall, Mike’s Pastry, and the Harborfront. I captured some short videos and compiled them here as a keepsake of their trip.

Spring Break

This spring break, I went back home (to New Jersey, how exotic) and decided to try my hand at making some of the recipes I had found on Pinterest during the semester.

I also started up an Instagram account for my parents’ puppy! His name is Bailey and he’s a terrier/beagle mix.

Looking back: Boston’s record Feb temps

Record temperatures in Boston on Feb. 23-25 saw students at Boston University taking advantage of the unseasonable chance to spend time outdoors. Students in shorts and t-shirts passed early flower and tree buds and piles of melting snow.

More information about the temps (which surpassed the record for daily highs set in 1985) can be found over at WBUR.

NewsTrack 4: Fake News

Sports reporting seems like the obvious antitheses to “fake news” and “gaslight reporting.” There are replays, statistics follow hard-and-fast algorithms, and biases are mostly rivalries or grudges.

But we treat athletes like celebrities, and with that objectification also comes gossip and constant rumors. While not the same as the current “fake news” debate, gossip is based in similar roots: people and writers with individual agendas producing content that runs counter to established fact or without reliable sourcing. For the sake of this post, we will define “fake news” as simply any news that is unfounded in its information and potentially biased in its sourcing.

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FiveThirtyEight, the statistics website hosted by ESPN, posted this video analyzing the rise and existence of “fake news,” mainly through the lens of their language-analysis tracker and the user-generated “news aggregation” site Reddit.

This video specifically defines “fake news” as the ways readers can gather data and make their own conclusions about language and reporting trends, and does not make any directive about how readers should go about digesting or “combating” fake news.

As for ESPN itself, the site protects itself from spreading any heavy “rumors” by keeping speculations to their subscriber-only page Insider, as well as pages specifically labeled for rumors, such as this trade tracker.

Rumor-based posts are also easily noted by their use of vague “sources.”

On the whole, “fake news” in sports reporting or data journalism does not carry the same connotations as it would in, say, the front pages of the Boston Globe or Wall Street Journal. But for a style of writing almost entirely based in data analytics and visual replays, perhaps it’s all the more difficult to make conjectures and “alternative” news in the first place.

 

 

NewsTrack 3: ESPN and Imagery

Sports reporting requires dynamic action shots to effectively cover athletic events, but emotional still photos and videos can also add to the quality of a reporter’s story, or in ESPN’s case, the way a company brands itself.

In this week’s NewsTrack post, I analyze how ESPN’s use of photography, videography, and other image-based media matches with their mission to be “The Worldwide Leader in Sports”.

ESPN is typically associated with the talking-heads on shows like SportsCenter, or live coverage and replays of events like on “Monday Night Football.” Their websites and social media accounts also display colorful, less serious images (below), editorial shoots (above) as well as graphs, fan interactives, and grabs from athletes’ social media accounts.

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This balance of traditional and experimental media presents sports journalism as a multifaceted, entertaining venture, rather than something restricted by a particular demographic, a conclusion repeated in my previous NewsTrack posts. Sports is sometimes seen as serious, and only appealing to men, but ESPN’s coverage shows that it can be both serious and calculated, but also silly and fun — and silliness is not exclusionary at all.

Features News and the Super Bowl

Let me preface this by saying I only see the Super Bowl as another hurdle to Spring Training.

This week, as part of my ongoing NewsTrack assignment, I followed ESPN’s coverage of Super Bowl 51. I focused on their pre-game coverage, starting from the evening of Friday, Feb. 3 up until right before kickoff, and analyzed their use of social media and statistics to prepare for and even predict the Super Bowl. One standout I noticed: ESPN’s extensive use of feature news and “fun” interactives to enhance the pre-game experience.

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Pre-game coverage included videos on Twitter and Instagram, shown above, and an “inside the numbers” analysis of the Falcons’ defense. Both of these approaches predict the Super Bowl from two different angles: human interest, and statistics and data. One of the interesting and appealing parts of ESPN’s sports coverage is that they give equal weight to both points of view, that emotion is just as important as hard and fast stats.

Also on ESPN’s Snapchat story: a “cute” edit of Falcon’s quarterback Matt Ryan, after being named the NFL MVP, and an interactive fill-in-the-blank.

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As far as reaching final conclusions and predictions, as of Feb. 2, the staff at ESPN predicted the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl 51 by an average of 20 points over the Atlanta Falcons.

GAME DAY

Two hours before game time, ESPN posted more predictions and analysis, as well as a masterpost of links to watch the game, statistics, and previously posted analysis and prediction reports. As of 4 pm, game day, one prediction held the Patriots to a 20-point win over the Falcons.

Returning to human-interest angles, ESPN Twitter posted this photo of Tom Brady, his father, and his mother, who missed all of her son’s games in the regular season.

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After coming back from an almost 20-point deficit after halftime, the New England Patriots claimed a win in Super Bowl 51. And Mr. Gisele comes home with a new shiny ring.

Tracking ESPN

ESPN describes itself as the “worldwide leader in sports,” and fulfills this commitment by extending its coverage beyond basic sports reporting.

ESPN embraces the multimedia journalism practice with its news and radio stations, social media accounts on platforms like Twitter and Snapchat, and interactive feature stories.

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photo courtesy of ESPN Snapchat

ESPN is also the parent company of FiveThirtyEight, the analytics blog known for things like Super Bowl and Presidential election predictions. By hosting FiveThirtyEight, ESPN can add statistics and “data journalism” to its already well-known sports commentary.

Likewise, ESPN produces more features and breaking news about sports than politics. Hosting FiveThirtyEight adds another genre for ESPN to claim and publish, widening its potential audience.

Recent coverage of American politics on FiveThirtyEight includes podcasts, statistical analysis, and other overviews of things like the 2016 Presidential Election and President Donald Trump’s current agenda.

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screengrab courtesy FiveThirtyEight

This mixture of analytics, up-to-the-minute commentary, and even some “fun” feature stories (like the Snapchat screenshot above) indeed supports ESPN’s claim to become an international sports news source.