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ESPN continues efforts to seem nonpartisan with new social media policy

ESPN updated its social media policy in October. Jemele Hill's tweets put a spotlight on how ESPN personalities should conduct themselves regarding political and social issues. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET)

It’s been a tumultuous couple of months for ESPN, particularly in the realm of social media.

The controversy surrounding Jemele Hill’s tweets calling President Donald Trump a white supremacist, followed by her discussion of NFL boycotts that got her suspended put a spotlight on how ESPN personalities should conduct themselves regarding political and social issues.

In response, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports issued a new social media policy, which includes very specific limitations to political expression for employees. The policy was written primarily by Kevin Merida, editor in chief of The Undefeated.

“I ask that we all work together to ensure that we produce the highest quality sports content for fans, and to assure that we do so in an environment of uncompromised journalistic standards,” ESPN president John Skipper wrote to his employees.

Key policy points

With the new policy, ESPN reaffirmed its right to punish violators, and established a high burden of justification for reporters and commentators to be allowed to express partisan political opinions.

Here are some highlights:

  • “Our engagement on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be civil, responsible, and without overt political or other biases that would threaten our or your credibility with the public.”

  • “ESPN is a journalistic organization (not a political or advocacy organization). We should do nothing to undermine that position.”

  • “Related to political and social issues, our audiences should be confident our original reporting of news is not influenced by political pressures or personal agendas.”

  • “…we should refrain from overt partisanship or endorsement of particular candidates, politicians or political parties.”

Blurred lines

ESPN's new policy comes during a time when sports and politics are intersecting every day. Hill's tweets became the topic of a White House press briefing. ESPN's biggest moneymaker, the NFL, is embroiled in a seemingly unending controversy about protests that has divided players, owners and fans.

At the same time, ESPN's public personalities don't always fit into the same neat categories they used to. An ESPN employee might be a hard news reporter one day, an analyst the next, and a commentator on a different show. That makes it more difficult to draw lines for when political expression is appropriate, and more unlikely that ESPN can separate its brand from the personal opinions of its personalities.

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