ESPN Fumbles Deflategate Reporting

When you think about it, the fuss over "Deflategate" - the controversy about whether the New England Patriots, in violation of NFL rules, deflated footballs below the standard pressure to gain a competitive advantage - seems pretty amusing.

ESPN's reporting on the controversy? Not quite as amusing. As a former journalist, I would categorize ESPN's coverage as shoddy at best, irresponsible at worst. In fact, the hack job that ESPN has executed should be studied by journalism students as a classic case study on how to botch what might have been a compelling story.

How, exactly, has ESPN messed this up? As a famous Bard once said, let me count the ways:

Off to a Bad Start

On January 20, ESPN NFL reporter Chris Mortensen posited that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts were measured at 2 PSI under the low threshold allowed by the league (12.5 PSI). After the NFL conducted scientific tests on the balls, it was found that only one ball was a full 2 PSI under the low threshold; 10 others were described as being "a tick or two" under. Big difference.

Sometimes, First is Worst

Every media outlet wants to break a story; nothing wrong with that. Each time ESPN uncovered another facet of the story, they hastily filed another report. Problem is, a short time later, other media outlets - or even ESPN itself - inevitably unearthed another detail that would have amplified the previous report, not only making it more complete but more accurate.

What's worse, the new detail has often contradicted the previous report. For example, ESPN reported that Patriots employee Jim McNally (more about him in a minute) tried to “introduce” one of the underinflated balls into the game. But a short time later, it was reported that the ball was actually given to him by an NFL official on the Patriots’ sideline. Thus, all McNally did was hand over to the game official a ball that was given to him by another NFL official. So initially, McNally looked like a potential suspect with bad intentions. Yet a short time later, he appeared to be a guy who simply did his job. ESPN should have dug a little deeper before producing the first report.

It’s Who You Know

Speaking of McNally, why do we know his name -- and his hometown, no less – yet the official who allegedly handed him the ball remains anonymous? There is the remote possibility that ESPN’s reporters were unable to ascertain the referee’s name, but that is highly doubtful. The fact is, they revealed the name of a man who appears to have no real involvement in the situation, but not the NFL official who not only appears to be extremely involved, but has been found to be selling game balls for profit. Was ESPN afraid of angering the NFL’s top brass? Maybe – but whatever the reason, this is uneven reporting at its finest.

What's in a Name?

Unnamed sources are a mixed bag. In some cases, a source will go on record with information that is critical to the story on the condition that they remain anonymous. In these instances, it’s imperative to weigh the quality of the information against the backlash that might result from the anonymity. The bottom line is, unnamed sources should be used judiciously.

Unless you're a reporter for ESPN. ESPN's stories have been riddled with anonymous sources. After reading a few of their reports, you'd think half the sports world was in the witness protection program. Unnamed sources talking about low air pressure. Unnamed sources saying they saw a Patriots attendant go into the bathroom with the balls. Unnamed sources contending that the league checked the pressure of the balls at halftime of the AFC Championship game, other unnamed sources saying they didn’t. With so few people apparently unwilling to attach their names to their statements, ESPN’s overall reporting of the story has all the credibility of Brian Williams.

Did He or Didn't He?

ESPN reported that after Indianapolis Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a pass from Pats quarterback Tom Brady late in the first half of the AFC Championship, he brought it over to the Indy sideline and said it felt a little underinflated. But later, ESPN reported that Jackson contended that he never said that. So he either did or he didn't. Well, at least ESPN covered all of the possibilities.

In ESPN’s defense, reporting a story like this can be extremely difficult. Lots of rumor and innuendo to sift through, personal agendas, sources unwilling to go on the record – it adds up to a Herculean task. But no one said investigative reporting was easy. And if you can’t do it right, you shouldn’t do it at all. That’s a lesson that ESPN is learning the hard way.