Broadcasting in more than 200 countries and boasting the most oft-read sports Web site in the world, ESPN rarely gets criticized.
It's partly because of the company's monopoly on sports information, partly because they usually do a good job offering multiple viewpoints, and partly because every sports reporter grew up idolizing the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports."
But ESPN has come under a maelstrom of criticism this week, and rightfully so. On Tuesday morning, the Associated Press reported that Andrea McNulty, 31, accused Ben Roethlisberger of raping her. McNulty said the incident occurred during a celebrity golf tournament last July while she was working as an executive VIP casino host at Harrah's Lake Tahoe. She filed a civil suit against him and eight others last week. She said casino officials helped cover up the crime.
As the hours passed, newsrooms across the country picked up the story. When Roethlisberger's attorney vehemently denied the claims, they wrote follow-ups.
But 24 hours passed, and not one mention of Roethlisberger on any of ESPN's platforms. Then it came out that ESPN instructed its employees not to report on it.
Finally, 36 hours after the incident, ESPN.com posted a story, "Authorities won't look at Roethlisberger."
First off, the headline is misleading. The authorities in Reno said they can't investigate the incident until a criminal complaint has been filed, which it hasn't been yet. Secondly, why all the soft treatment?
Finally, ESPN broke its silence in an interview to the Wall Street Journal, saying it didn't want to report on a sensational civil suit if there was no criminal complaint.
"We don’t think it meets our standard of reporting," ESPN news director Vince Doria said.
Yet just last month, ESPN reported on a similar civil suit filed against Los Angeles Lakers point guard Shannon Brown. In that case, the Denver Police Department had already conducted an investigation and found no evidence to corroborate that woman's story, yet ESPN still chose to report on it.
The handling of the Roethlisberger story has outraged readers and media members alike. Why did ESPN not write a story initially? And when it finally did, why write a misleading story and not have the alleged rape as the lead?
I don't know the answer. It could be Roethlisberger is white and Shannon Brown, Kobe Bryant and Manny Ramirez are black. It could be Roethlisberger's image as "one of the good guys" (partially because of his skin color). It could be ESPN didn't want to alienate the largest fan base in football, or it could just be the company truly wanted to exercise caution for once. We will probably never know the real reasons.
Regardless of the reasons though, ESPN's failure to report on Roethlisberger's case — unlike every other sensational story it jumps all over — looks bad to the public. In journalism, it's not so much the improprieties, but the appearance of impropriety, which causes readers to lose their confidence in their news sources. Based on comments from fans across the country on Web sites and talk radio, I suspect ESPN will have trouble regaining that trust now that it's gone.