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King, Roberts, Frederickson: Three perspectives on ESPN’s powerful coverage

EDITOR’S NOTE: ESPN SVP and Editor-At-Large ESPN Content, Rob King, SVP, Production, David Roberts and SVP, Production & Content Strategy, Jill Frederickson offer their thoughts on ESPN’s coverage from the past week and the strong response to George Floyd’s death. King’s thoughts begin the post, followed by Roberts and Frederickson, respectively.

Rob King

We find ourselves in the midst of what can only be described as an unprecedented time in human history. The pandemic has isolated us in ways we never contemplated. The events of the past few weeks, horrifically punctuated by the killing of George Floyd, have added to the urgency.

We are hurting, fearful, and reflective.

I know I’m not alone in blinking back an unexpected tear, or staring at my kids with an ever-more exhausting mixture of vulnerability and vigilance.

In this moment, people inside and outside ESPN consuming our content are reasonably wondering what guiding principles have helped steer ESPN’s coverage approach. Given this atmosphere of raw and somewhat inarticulable emotion, that’s not the simplest question to answer. As ever, ESPN seeks to honor and serve sports fans, and we also seek to represent them. We aim to do our work with empathy, understanding, and the appropriate sensitivity that these subjects demand.

What you’ve seen, heard and read across ESPN outlets over the past week is a meaningful reflection of the profoundly intense and personal array of emotions sweeping through the collective consciousness of our audience. The work has been powerful and poignant. It has taken two forms.

On one hand, ESPN has aggressively documented the overflowing reaction from the leagues, teams and athletes we cover every single day. As we’ve seen time and time again, sports drive discussion, and at a time when listening is so critical, voices from the sports world continue to resonate. The ever-present connection of sports and societal issues will always be fundamental to ESPN’s efforts.

The second aspect of ESPN’s coverage has been the commentary of our on-air colleagues. We are fortunate to have such a talented, diverse, and thoughtful group of people who have enriched our audiences by sharing their intellect and their hearts. They have shared deeply personal stories, enlightened us, and educated us. It’s important to note that in this moment, these conversations demonstrate a level of humanity and responsibility that is more definitive of our values than a departure from policy.

ESPN has always found a way to embrace critical, timely discussions of societal issues. The work isn’t always easy, but it’s achievable, thanks to the wide range of platforms and diverse collection of voices we can deploy. We tailor and modify our approaches rather than being confined to “One size fits all.” The ongoing, impactful work of First Take and The Undefeated offer shining examples of that philosophy.

ESPN has a long history of prioritizing the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity, and we devote the appropriate resources to support that. We align by caring deeply about issues of fairness, and that is truly core to who we are.

David Roberts

I wanted to capture the real emotion and passion surrounding the events subsequent to George Floyd’s killing.

Hopefully, this will educate those who are unaware of the racial ramifications involved and reality that the black community lives with 24/7 – whether you are the highest-paid African American NBA star or an entry-level African American production assistant employed by any media outlet.

I am very proud of the teams involved since this was not easy to put together. Frankly, people are still not comfortable talking about race. Part of my job is to help our team members understand the related issues. That said, I am extremely impressed with how open our white commentators have been throughout the coverage. They have listened and were ready to learn and contribute, which is a key part of finding real measurable solutions.

There are highlights that are noteworthy:

Our focus on this topic began with Get Up [see video above] on Friday when Jalen Rose, Domonique Foxworth and Louis Riddick gave their emotional initial reactions to the killing of Floyd.

Later that day, during the evening SportsCenter, Stephen A. Smith came off vacation to share his very raw reaction. On PTI, Michael Wilbon expressed his disappointment while recalling the 1960s riots and that nothing has changed. During one segment, we aired the Jeremy Schaap piece on why today’s athletes are so passionate on the topic and how it is encouraging that many white high-profile athletes are speaking out, followed by a compelling interview with Malcolm Jenkins by Kevin Negandhi.

That segment lasted more than nine minutes, approximately the amount of time George Floyd had that officer’s knee on his neck, which killed Floyd. As I watched, as an ESPN employee and as a viewer, it underscored how horrific the act was.

Over the weekend, I was impressed and heartened by every radio show, especially because our white on-air colleagues in many cases were honest in admitting they didn’t know all of the issues facing Black America. That led to very honest, open, and impactful conversation about why this matters so much. Conversations led by Marty Smith and Ryan McGee and Nicole Briscoe and Randy Scott were compelling.

On Monday, Get Up focused on various emotional conversations, reacting to facts with sensitivity, empathy, and compassion led by Mike Greenberg, who took extra time and interest to make sure we handled story the right way.

Monday’s special First Take episode took a lot of planning and dialog over the weekend with Stephen A., coordinating producer Antoine Lewis, and his team. With so many high-profile voices ready to engage, we created two-hours of compelling TV. Stephen A., who has never shied away from race and sports, secured many of the guests himself including Charlamagne tha God, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Indiana Pacers star Malcolm Brogdon, University of Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck and others who shared compelling stories and ideas on how we must move forward.

Stephen A. also hosted First Take, Your Take, our 1-3 p.m. national radio show. His powerful opening monologue led to engaged listeners and compelling radio. He didn’t sugarcoat or run from the issues; he met them head-on.

It is important to understand that the intersection of sports, race, and social issues will always matter to Black America. There is no escape from the past and present realities of racism. The special coverage got to the heart of what for some might be an uncomfortable topic; but it is also critical, especially for our white colleagues to understand these issues, why they matter so much to the black community and how they must play an integral role to create the necessary solutions in 2020.

Jill Frederickson

I woke up on Wednesday morning and saw many athletes posting their outrage on social media about George Floyd’s death. I emailed David Kraft, who runs our News Group, Judson Burch, who leads our Noon SportsCenter show and my colleague Dave Roberts, who leads Get Up and First Take, to start the conversation about how to cover. The conversations, led by “What do you think?” confirmed the significance of the story across all our ESPN outlets and set the tone for the rest of the week.

That day, our news was out around 9 a.m. Dave’s shows monitored the story. The Noon SC focused on LeBron James’ immediate reaction and [former NBA star] Stephen Jackson’s personal relationship with Floyd. Over the next several days, we continued to be aggressive in following the story and the many sports figures’ reactions – creating 40-50 stories online, and including in shows every day.

For the television side, we’ve had collaborative conversations about what video pieces we need to produce, what voices do we need to hear from, how are we capturing the intense reactions from both black and white sports figures, and monitoring the ongoing conversation?

The most important part for me is to make sure these conversations include people with different perspectives and approaches to content, including The Undefeated’s leadership, and be aware of all our coverage.

I am most proud of the thoughtful piece Jeremy Schaap wrote, capturing the totality of the responses from the sports community, which we surrounded with comprehensive coverage of protests across the country in our Saturday morning shows.

We were also able to get [WNBA star] Brianna Turner from the Phoenix Mercury to come on our Monday Noon SportsCenter to give her perspective on what the younger generation can and must do to affect change. It was an interview that both Jay Harris and Hannah Storm participated in, and Brianna was incredibly impressive, personifying the strong leadership we are seeing from athletes during this time.

This story is one that has affected all of us, as people, whether we’re Black or an ally supporting the fight against the racial injustice that is happening all too often. As a result, we presented a unique bit of content from Elle Duncan and Matt Barrie in our Noon SC on Tuesday, June 2. We normally guide our anchors to be neutral presenters, but after a passionate plea from Elle and Matt to have a conversation about how this story has influenced both of them personally, we discussed the best way to present it on the show.

The result was an authentic look into how both anchors come to this story from very different backgrounds, yet they have been able to be a team that respects each other’s differences and learns from each other.

Our guiding light for news and SportsCenter is to “report what you know,” but with this story, we have needed to report what we feel and what others are feeling, more than ever.

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