Ever since ESPN suspended 6 p.m. co-host Jemele Hill for a second violation of the company’s social media guidelines last month, there’s been significant external interest in how the network regulates what employees say on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
On Thursday, the network publicly released a new set of social media guidelines that deal with social and political issues. The effort was led by Kevin Merida, the former Washington Post managing editor who runs the ESPN property The Undefeated.
“The most important principles have not changed,” ESPN president John Skipper said in releasing the guidelines. “Most profoundly, they reflect our continued commitment to journalism and our focus on sports.”
A section of the guidelines deal specifically with commentaries. ESPN employees are told: “Commentaries on relevant sports-related issues are appropriate, but we should refrain from overt partisanship or endorsement of particular candidates, politicians or political parties. … We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, as warranted. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.”
While Skipper told Sports Business Daily that the guidelines were not released in response to Hill’s case, Hill initially got in trouble for writing on Twitter that Donald Trump is a “white supremacist,” which would likely be considered “inflammatory rhetoric” under the new guidelines.
Employees that focus on “hard news” are provided a separate set of guidelines. “Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in ‘hard’ news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders,” employees are told.
In both guidelines and in Skipper’s comments about the guidelines, a clear message is conveyed to staff that ESPN is strictly a sports-focused organization, though occasionally issues bubble up — like the athlete-led movement to kneel during the national anthem — that intersect with cultural and political issues.
Hill returned to her show on Oct. 23, and only briefly discussed her two-week suspension on air.