Jemele Hill interviewed Janay Rice for this essay that was published in ESPN's magazine and on its website.
Jemele Hill interviewed Janay Rice for this essay that was published in ESPN’s magazine and on its website.

No matter what anybody tells you, never allow a source to approve a story before it gets published. Your credibility as a journalist gets crushed if you allow a source to control a story, no matter how hard you might attempt to explain that nothing important was removed.

This is why I am bothered by ESPN’s interview with Janay Rice, wife to suspended NFL running back Ray Rice.

Last year, Sports Illustrated allowed LeBron James to review a story, but the magazine did not offer approval rights. Still, avoid this approach as well, because readers will question your integrity, believing a source probably did have some control over the final product. As outlined in the Society of Professional Journalism’s Code of Ethics, we must remain independent.

This single story won’t quash my respect for Jemele Hill, someone I’ve followed since she started working for my old newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel. She’s a tenacious reporter and a talented writer. But at a time when so many question journalists’ credibility, we should avoid such conflicts of interest. It’s a shame that ESPN put a fine reporter in this situation, and, further, that the writer agreed to go along. Ultimately, what’s to be gained? Perhaps, a tainted exclusive. What’s to be lost? A lot. Sources might now try to negotiate control over their stories, leveraging various media sources against one another in order to see who will allow them to have the most control.

spj codeThat appears to be exactly what happened here, according to the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir: “Her [Janay Rice’s] group of advisers, which included Hiltzik Strategies, a public relations firm run by Matthew Hiltzik, fielded requests from more than 15 media outlets eager for an exclusive interview with her. The advisers winnowed the group down to a handful of reporters who, in effect, auditioned with her to get an interview.”

Of course, as-told-to stories are not unprecedented. Writers do this all the time, especially in books. The interview with Janay Rice is more jarring because it involves a news story and not some game once played years before. If we continue to allow such stories, journalists and the news media will lose even more integrity down the line.

I’m very disappointed that a leading journalism ethicist for one of the leading training grounds for journalists said she was not troubled that ESPN and Hill allowed Rice the final approval. Kelly McBride, vice president for the Poynter Institute, told Sandomir: “I’m O.K. with sources seeing regular stories ahead of time as long as there are boundaries about why you change it. It has to be only if something is wrong, not that the source is troubled by the tone.” Readers already distrust journalists, so why give them another reason to question our ethics?

McBride, who participated in an 18-month project where Poynter partnered with ESPN to analyze its media coverage, previously lauded Jemele Hill for a powerful column that addressed race, athletes and Trayvon Martin. In her analysis back in 2012, McBride cautioned journalists to explain stories, not become a part of them. “When you become part of the story, you lose your ability to tell an independent story.”

That’s exactly what happened here.

Here are some other perspectives on this story.

  • Hill explains the situation behind the story in her own podcast.
  • Hill tells sports media critic Richard Deitsch that she would never do anything to compromise her journalism integrity.
  • ESPN’s Hill is more a stenographer than a journalists, says Mediaite.
  • The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir details how Janay Rice’s PR team decided which media outlets would get this story.
  • A Baltimore Sun critic says that ESPN sold out, trading its credibility rather cheaply for its story.
  • Jemele Hill tells CNN the interview was a collaboration.
  • The Washington Post’s Eric Wimple asks: “In what universe can no questions be off limits when a subject has ‘approval’ over the interview’s ‘content and release date.'”