NEW YORK — ESPN's news-making coverage this past week on baseball MVP Ryan Braun and another alleged case of sexual abuse by a sports figure are a boost and, no doubt, relief to the network's journalists after a tough month.
Critics roughed up the sports network for its handling of abuse stories involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and ex-Syracuse basketball assistant Bernie Fine. And some in sports wonder whether a network that pays millions of dollars in rights fees to televise sports events can critically report controversial sports stories. ESPN says it can.
"There is some impetus to do more enterprise and investigative reporting," said Vince Doria, ESPN's vice president and director of news. "That's an important area for the company."
ESPN broke the story on Dec. 10 that Milwaukee Brewers slugger and reigning National League MVP Braun had tested positive for a substance banned by baseball and is fighting to avoid a 50-game suspension.
A day earlier, ESPN's Tom Farrey reported that two former youth basketball players accused ex-Amateur Athletic Union president Robert "Bobby" Dodd of molesting them as children. One of the accusers, Ralph West, said he came to ESPN after reading the grand jury allegations against Sandusky and sought out Farrey because of a book the reporter wrote on amateur athletics.
Both breaking news and investigative reporting efforts were faulted in ESPN's response to the Sandusky and Fine stories.
In the days after the lurid grand jury report that made Sandusky a household name, ESPN was criticized for being slow to grasp the story's significance and follow up on its threads. Sara Ganim, a reporter from the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., was widely regarded as the toughest and most aggressive reporter on the story.
It took three days before ESPN "finally seemed consistently to ask the right questions and find the appropriate moral outrage," wrote Jason Fry and Kelly McBride of the journalism think tank the Poynter Institute. Both are working as ESPN ombudsmen. Some of ESPN's early coverage, such as a blog post that discussed how the scandal would affect Penn State's football recruiting, seemed ill-timed considering the more important questions about damaged youths, they noted.
ESPN was first on the air with a story about molestation allegations against Syracuse's Fine. As the story developed, more people wondered why ESPN wasn't reporting on the charges eight years earlier.
The network in 2003 investigated a former Syracuse ball boy's claims against Fine. Like the Syracuse Post Standard, which was looking into the same charges, the story wasn't reported at the time because no one backed up the charges. Both organizations went public in 2011 when a second person told his own story of alleged abuse. It also came to light that ESPN had for years a tape of Fine's wife discussing the alleged abuse with the first accuser, although with a lack of specificity.
Critics, including the ombudsmen, suggested ESPN gave up pursuing the initial story too quickly — a decision that could have serious implications if alleged abuse continued in the intervening years.
"We do not believe that ESPN acted with gross negligence," Fry and McBride wrote, "but rather a lack of persistence."
"We get a lot of scrutiny," Doria said. "I would ask them to look at our record."
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