Looking at Knowing your Neighborhood through the ESPN/Frontline Investigation of the NFL

CNL News Lesson

Lesson Outline

September 3, 2013

Watch "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

One of the fundamental principles of the Stony Brook Model of teaching News Literacy is that you should “Know your News Neighborhood” and be aware of the danger in blurring the lines between different types of information, such as news, opinion, entertainment, promotion, advertising, and so on. In this lesson, we explore what happens when the lines between news and entertainment blur at a huge media organization.

Recently the Disney-owned ESPN, the self-styled “worldwide leader in sports,” abruptly ended its association with the PBS documentary series Frontline on the joint production of an investigative film concerning concussions in the National Football League. Questions arose about why ESPN had ended its involvement, and whether those blurred lines had led to the decision to pull out of the investigation and to demand that any mention of ESPN be removed from the film.

This decision, and subsequent controversy over the reasons behind it, led to suspicions about a potential conflict of interest between journalistic concerns and the multi-billion dollar commercial relationship between ESPN and the NFL, and highlighted the danger of such conflicts affectinh the news you see and hear.

ESPN officials withdrew from their agreement with PBS only after producing nine previous joint projects with Frontline, including some that were highly critical of the NFL.
They said they pulled out because they did not have editorial control of the film.

It was later revealed, however, that pressure from the NFL may instead have prompted the decision.
The result, the New York Times concluded, "left ESPN, the multibillion dollar sports behemoth, again defending its dual existence as a sports platform and a news organization."


1. Do you believe the reason offered by ESPN officials as to why they quit their relationship with Frontline?

2. Do you see a potential conflict of interest facing ESPN in functioning both as a news organization and/or an entertainment company? If so, what effect do you think it might have on the news you see?

3. As a viewer of ESPN, what do you think is its mission? Is it to investigate major issues in sports, such as player concussions on teams in both the college and pro arena? Or is simply to broadcast and comment on sports matches?

4. Why should ESPN air critical reports about one of its key business partners? Is it any business of ours what commercial decisions they make? After all, aren’t they are in business to produce a profit, instead of informing the public?

Here is a note from Frontline in reaction to the controversy and a brief trailer of the coming documentary:


What do you think of Frontline's response and its unusual decision to "comment on investigative projects in progress"?

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