A CASE STUDY OF JEMELE HILL’S SUSPENSION AND MEDIA ETHICS

 

A CASE STUDY OF JEMELE HILL’S SUSPENSION AND MEDIA ETHICS

 

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INTRODUCTION

Looking critically into the suspension of Jemele Hill, an anchor of Sports Center by Entertainment Sports and Programming Network (ESPN) based on the allegation of violation of media ethics. Hill, an American sports journalist with ESPN was suspended following a series of controversial tweets she made critical of the President and in response to Jerry Jones owner of the Dallas Cowboys. This was related to the Take the Knee protest which was previously ongoing and initiated by players who knelt during the anthem in a bid to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice in the United States.

President Trump and his surrogates had criticized the National Football League (N.F.L) for allowing players to sit or kneel during the playing of the anthem calling it a sign of disrespect to the soldiers, the flag and the National Anthem.  Hill had earlier stated in a series of tweets that, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” and “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period” Her blunt language apparently infuriated the president by which he replied in blaming the ESPN host for the network’s rating drops; “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked.’ In fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!” Hill, however, did not apologize for her remarks but only clarified that they were her own personal views, noting that she is first a citizen before being associated with ESPN and expressed regret that her comments may have “painted ESPN in an unfair light”.

Jemele Hill’s suspension by ESPN was stated by the company as a result of her violating their social media guidelines which had previously been updated earlier this year. The controversy in general had raised a lot of comments and questions, some with the view that Hill had done nothing wrong in voicing her opinion and that her suspension was only a punishment for criticizing an important business partner. Others, however, believed that her actions were “outrageous and a fire-able offense.” (Jemele Hill Suspended, 2017).

This paper will evaluate if Hill really did violate ESPN’s code of conduct in relation to media ethics or is being placed on a controversial spot because of the involvement of ESPN’s business partners.

CASE FACTS

On September 11, 2017, Jemele Hill made a series of tweets critical of President Donald Trump including describing him as a “white supremacist”. ESPN had then issued a statement saying Hill’s comments “do not represent the position of ESPN. We have discussed with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate” being her first violation. Hill later clarified that she stood by her comments as representative of her personal beliefs; “My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light.”

Following the tweet Jemele made in response to Jerry Jones, the owner of Dallas Cowboys who had stated that any player who disrespected the flag would not play; ESPN suspended her for two weeks for a second violation of their social media guidelines. The tweet that triggered the suspension read, “This play always works. Change happens when advertisers are impacted. If you feel strongly about JJ’s statement, boycott his advertisers”. She later went on to tweet, “Just so we’re clear: I’m not advocating a NFL boycott. But an unfair burden has been put on the players in Dallas and Miami w/ anthem directives”.  Meanwhile ESPN has a 15.2-billion-dollar deal with the league to broadcast NFL games throughout 2021.

In a statement ESPN said,

“Jemele Hill has been suspended for two weeks for a second violation of our social media guidelines. She previously acknowledged letting her colleagues and company down with an impulsive tweet. In the aftermath, all employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences. Hence, this decision.” (Lopez, 2017)

The network’s guidelines updated earlier this year, stated ESPN’s  employee working in news could not tweet about “political or social issues, candidates or office holders” (Editor, 2017). ESPN public editor Jim Bradly weighed in on Hill’s tweets then, calling them “an error in judgement” (2017) arguing that calling Trump a white supremacist is an opinion.

It would be of interest to know that during the NBA playoffs, Hill was suspended from her post after referencing Adolph Hitler in an article about the then NBA champions Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons. Hill wrote in an editorial describing why she could not support the Celtics, “Rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It’s like hoping Gorbaucher would get to the blinking red button before Reagan. Deserving or not, I still hate the Celtics.” (Pederson, 2017) The comment generated a negative response and that portion of the editorial was taken out shortly after the column was published. Hill was subsequently suspended for one week and she issued an apology through ESPN.

 

EMERGING ACTIONS/REACTIONS

Some criticized Hill’s comments, including White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who called them “outrageous and a fire-able offense by ESPN”, Trump criticized the network and demanded an apology. Others voiced support for Hill and criticized ESPN and the White House responses arguing that Hill’s comments were accurate and that a White House official be fired infringed on the First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. Sports Illustrator’s legal analyst Michael Caan wrote that although Hill has a First Amendment right to tweet her views, that right did not insulate her from sanction by her private sector employer. Attorney David Wachtel also weighed in for a Lifehacker explainer saying, that one cannot have First Ammendment protections when they are employed by the private sector and that a simple activity on social media could lead to a person being fired.

ESPN public editor Jim Bradly took into consideration Hill’s tweets saying, that her Trump tweets were a clear violation of the ESPN guidelines. He wrote. “Here there’s nothing I can find that suggests Hill’s NFL tweets were in violation of any specific guideline” (Editor, 2017). In the wake of these pair of controversies, ESPN released revised social media guidelines for its employees. According to ESPN President John Skipper, the changes were not made specifically in response to Hill’s incidents, but more because of what those controversies reflected. For ESPN, part of the problem is its being dragged into a political battle and political charged space that it wants little to do with following the network’s recent drops in ratings. The revised social media guidelines are not widely different from the previous set, but the change is mainly in the addition of a preamble that ties the policies to ESPN’s larger mission. This is considered very necessary now that political and social issues elements are an unavoidable part of any social media platform. ESPN could have opted for a long, imposing set of guidelines that would have likely been impossible to police and could have also prompted its staff to decide social media wasn’t worth the effort. But the preface lays out why the new guidelines are important to ESPN as an entity and not just to each individual posting on social media. For instance, part of the preamble authored by Kelvin Merida, senior vice president and Editor-in-Chief read,

“Do nothing that would undercut your colleagues’ work or embroil the company in unwanted controversy. We reserve the right to take action for violations of these principles. At ESPN, we have a shared responsibility to one another that accompanies the benefits we collectively enjoy. We respect your intelligence, champion your creativity and trust your best judgement.” (Editor, 2017)

 

According to a columnist who had spoken to Hill in the past, Hill had stated that it was exceedingly important to differentiate between commentary, politics, information and the discussion of social matters. She had later went on to say that,

“Racism isn’t politics. Racism is an issue of right and wrong. Tweeting about significant issues that affect marginalized people isn’t politics. That’s right and wrong. If I had to guess, I would say I’ve increased my tweets about social issues about 20%. I’ve tried really hard not to let these issues consume my feed, because there are a lot of days I want to have fun on Twitter. I want to debate with Power and Insecure fans about what’s happening on the show. I want to make jokes and have silly arguments but unfortunately those days feel like they happen less” (Dietsch, n.d)

Hill probably felt her tweets were just her personal response to what she considered a social issue but they were unfortunately linked to ESPN and eventually led to her suspension. She appears to be someone who is passionate about airing her views judging from the fact that her being punished in the past did not deter her from making such controversial comments. Being a journalist, one would not be surprised by this kind of behavior since journalists serve as a link between media, the people and government. Perhaps Hill had been just a citizen without any dealings with the media, those tweets might not have as much as raised an eyebrow or led to any form of sanction. Although her suspension was to last for two weeks, her future at ESPN remains uncertain.

 

APPLICATION OF ETHICAL THEORIES

Media ethics consists of various areas such as issues of moral principles and values as applied to the conduct, roles and content of the mass media, in particular journalistic ethics and advertising ethics. In relation to news coverage, it includes issues such as impartiality, objectivity, balance, bias, privacy and the public interest. On an institutional level, it includes debates over media ownership and control, commercialization, accountability and the relation of media to the political system. More generally it also includes stereotyping, taste and decency, obscenity, freedom of speech, advertising practices such as product placement, and legal issues such as defamation. The issues of freedom of speech and aesthetic values are primarily at home in media ethics and seem to be the ones that have drawn more attention in recent happenings.

Journalism ethics as required in the context of this narrative is one of the most well-defined branches of media ethics. Topics covered include;

  • News manipulation: News can manipulate and be manipulated. Governments and corporations may attempt to manipulate news media; governments, for example, by censorship and corporations by share ownership. Methods of manipulation are subtle and many. Manipulation may be voluntary or involuntary and those being manipulated may not be aware of this.
  • Truth: Truth may conflict with other many other values such as public interest, privacy, fantasy i.e in the mixing of fantasy and truth resulting in ethical dilemmas, and taste as in the  case of audience sensitivity [photojournalism]
  • Conflict with the law: Journalistic ethics may conflict with the law over issues such as the protection of confidential news sources. There is also the question of the extent to which it is ethically acceptable to break the law in order to obtain news.

In democratic countries, a special relationship exists between media and government. Modern democratic governments exist in representation of millions by hundreds. For the representatives to be accountable and for the process of government to be transparent, effective communication paths must exist to their constituents. Today, these paths consist primarily of the mass media to the extent that if press freedom disappeared, so would most political accountability. In this area, media ethics merges with issues of civil rights and politics.

Jemele Hill’s suspension according to ESPN was based on the grounds of her violating their social media guidelines which were just recently revised after the contention surrounding Hill. The key changes to ESPN’s social media policy are as follows:

“All social media activity by our journalists comes under these guidelines. Everything we post or comment on in social media is public. And everything we do in public is associated with ESPN.

ESPN is a journalistic organization (not a political or advocacy organization). We should do nothing to undermine that position. We are committed to inclusion, tolerance and that which makes us different. But we must remember that public comments on social platforms will reflect on ESPN and may affect your own credibility as a journalist.”

You are strongly encouraged to seek advice from a trusted colleague or supervisor before tweeting or posting something that may conflict with our guidelines and damage your reputation. In the spirit of using these guidelines as a framework of support, there may be alternative actions or ESPN forums to accomplish the overall goal of your intended tweet or social post” (Brady, 2017)

Jemele Hill’s suspension has raised a lot of questions about how journalists and commentators should behave. In ESPN’s guidelines, it states that commentary regarding political and social issues should be of merit to their time and resources, be related to current affairs that impact sports, should stay away from partisanship and show desist from inflammatory remarks and personal attacks. It also states that communication with producers and editors should take place prior to any posting.

According to journalism ethics, there is some sort of interwoven relationship between media and government. And the media serves as a communication path for transparency and accountability of government. Notwithstanding, in the presenting of various facts by the media may be conflicting with the law and also other values such as public interest, privacy and fantasy resulting in ethical quandary. In the view of a statement made by Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in Journalism Ethics at the Poynter Institute, “Trump’s statements on Twitter are not traditionally ‘presidential’ statements; they are frequently personal or unjustified attacks, often branding media as ‘fake news’, even when stories are factually correct” (Hill,2017) He told CNN, “It becomes difficult, but on some level you want to stay above the fray” (Hill,2017). This makes it somewhat difficult for one who is actively in the media system and believes has a right to air her opinion on social issues and at the same time prevent that opinion from being associated with the organization she works for.  Inevitably, ESPN will have to continue to state the point at which a comment on social media platform is permissible or will result in disciplinary action as clearly as possible. They have clearly stated in their revised social media guidelines that they are neither a political nor and advocacy organization but could it really be completely possible for staffers to detach themselves from what’s going on at the highest level in their country?

As this issue of what constitutes a violation online is getting renewed attention in this Trump age, journalists being the active participants in the relationship between media and government might find it hard to stay impartial on social media even if their employer requires it. Not forgetting that Media integrity is also an entity that makes the system resilient to institutional corruption and also encompasses the qualities of commitment to journalism ethics and standards and responsiveness to citizens. ESPN’S public editor said he understood why ESPN was troubled by Hill’s tweets:  A high profile personality suggested an advertiser boycott that would impact the network’s bottom line and she did it on the same social media platform she used to call out President Trump. The call for boycott, Brady says, comes really close to activism but he added, that it was neither Hill’s job nor was it that of any other ESPN journalist, to bother themselves with the business relationships of the network.

 

CONCLUSION

Hill was suspended after which their revised social media guidelines were released. The previous version of the policy mentioned only the broader ESPN universe as related to not publishing confidential material. It stated, “The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric” (Editor, 2017). It also read, “Prior to engaging in any form of social networking dealing with sports, you must receive permission from your supervisor. Personal Web sites and logs that contain sports content or ESPN marks are not permitted” (Editor, 2017). While the changes of the policy were not massive, the instincts of those who put them together seemed right. Their drawing of their journalists’ attention to thinking more broadly about the impact of their personal comments on social media platforms makes sense. Also, their removal of full-on approval seemed much more feasible since journalists were not expected in the actual sense to stop, take a breath and determine whether posting was a good idea or not. Jemele’s tweets, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” and “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.” could be referred to as; both a rhetoric and a personal attack. Still, her being accused of violating guidelines is an infringement on her human rights because Hill is first an American citizen before being associated with ESPN.

Nevertheless, ESPN’s President, Skipper said Hill’s suspension was appropriate and not because of a business partnership. Hypothetically, supposing her tweets hadn’t been specific about President Trump or Jerry Jones, would she have still been suspended? If Hill’s tweets had only been in the light of the Take the Knee stand but not in the response to anyone prominent in relationship to ESPN, would there have been an emergence of any revised guidelines or policies?

Her violation of the guidelines which were revised after her suspension made her serve as an example to her colleagues which might not be seen as the right call. They would have to avoid getting the company into unwanted controversy”.  ESPN would also have to keep maintaining the line between what is allowed and what is not, as regards to social media platforms in the face of future occurrences.  While also, putting into consideration the fact that no set of rules can cover all the different scenarios that exist on social platforms.

 

References

Editor, J. B. (2017, November 02). ESPN’s new social guidelines show right instincts. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from http://www.espn.com/blog/ombudsman

Deitsch, R. (n.d.). Jemele Hill’s Future at ESPN Remains Unclear. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from https://www.si.com/tech-media/2017/10/15/jemele-hill-espn-sportscenter-future

Hill “previously acknowledged letting her colleagues, & Company down with an impulsive tweet,” ESPN said in a statement. “In the aftermath. (n.d.). ESPN suspends Jemele Hill over NFL tweets. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from http://money.cnn.com/2017/10/09/media/jemele-hill-espn-suspended/index.html

Hyde, M. (2017, October 18). ESPN kneels before advertisers by silencing Jemele Hill for doing her job | Marina Hyde. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2017/oct/18/espn-kneels-jemele-hill

Jemele Hill Suspended by ESPN After Response to Jerry Jones. (n.d.). Retrieved November 16, 2017, from https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/10/09/sports/football/jemele-hill-suspended-espn.html

Lopez, G. (2017, September 15). Donald Trump’s war with ESPN and Jemele Hill, explained. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/9/15/16313800/trump-jemele-hill-espn-white-supremacist

Pedersen, E. (2017, April 04). ESPN Rulebook Sets New Guidelines For Employees Talking Politics. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from http://deadline.com/2017/04/espn-politics-guidelines-employees-news-commentary-1202061717/

Smith, S. (2017, October 10). ESPN suspends Jemele Hill for ‘impulsive tweet’. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from https://www.imediaethics.org/espn-suspends-jemele-hill-impuslive-tweet/

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