AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Triggering an Online Firestorm   

The Penn student who pointed the finger at ESPN’s complaint category “Dislike Female Commentators” reflects on the high-profile episode. Tues, February 21, 2012.

By Romy Zipken
Romy Zipken (rzipken@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Megan Soisson's rapid rise to Twitter fame was hardly intentional.

All she wanted to do was watch the Penn-Harvard basketball game on February 10, but it wasn't on TV. Soisson, a senior sports editor at the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn's student newspaper, figured the game might at least be viewed on ESPN's online streaming service, ESPN3. When she discovered it wasn't on the schedule, she decided to file a complaint.

So she fired off an e-mail to a generic ESPN address, and the response led her to a dropdown list with a plethora of men's college basketball complaint categories. Among them: "Dislike Female Commentators."

Baffled and thrown off course from her original mission, she took a screenshot of the link and tweeted it. What happened next was fairly predictable: The tweet went viral.

The torrent of outrage led ESPN to apologize — twice — and to scrap the offending complaint option. But some directed their ire at Soisson, with remarks such as, "I hope I never see you on the sidelines."

"My intent wasn't to make it go viral or have all these people see it," says Soisson, 21, whose goal is to cover pro football. "I'm glad it did happen that way, but I didn't expect it to happen."

Before triggering a major Internet controversy, Soisson was living the life of any college student journalist, balancing coursework, a devotion to the paper and a social life.

Soisson began her career in sports reporting at her high school newspaper in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. When she got to Penn, she was trepidatious about working at the campus newspaper. Partway through her freshman year, she began to cover track and swimming, sports she had played her whole life, giving her the comfort level she needed to get acclimated to the paper.

When Usain Bolt, the three-time Olympic gold medalist, was scheduled to participate in the Penn Relays at Penn's Franklin Field in 2010, Soisson wanted badly to cover the event. Her editor at the time, Michael Gold, asked her to prove she was ready.

Soisson took the challenge and went to all events and press conferences associated with the Penn Relays to demonstrate her dedication. Gold was impressed, and Soisson got the chance to cover Bolt's race.

"It was one of my coolest experiences, and then, after that, I felt like I had made enough of an impression that I could be on the football beat," says Soisson, who is now a junior. "That's what I wanted to do ever since I started at the Daily Pennsylvanian."

In December, Soisson was named senior sports editor, covering men's basketball as her primary beat, which led her to ESPN's complaint link.

After posting the screenshot, she tweeted at two leading female ESPN commentators, Sage Steele and Hannah Storm. Steele thanked her for pointing out the complaint category and admitted her shock and disappointment, Soisson says.

Considering her previously modest amount of Twitter followers, just over 200, the rampant attention that her tweet attracted was out of the ordinary for Soisson. At first, she didn't notice how much attention she had been getting. Once she realized, however, she became worried, because her Twitter account wasn't primed for the barrage of tweets.

"I don't say inappropriate things on my Twitter, but my Twitter feed is not a female sports commentators feed," she says. "A majority of my tweets are about Penn athletics, but I was kind of worried people were going to wish they didn't follow me."

Her tweet really took off after her close friend and former editor, the same one that put her on the Bolt story, passed it on to Jezebel, a blog owned by Gawker Media aimed at women.

"It was really infuriating," says Gold, now a sports producer at philly.com. "I know plenty of female journalists in news, sports and features arenas, and I guess one of the things that's always frustrated me, being a sports fan, is the assumed white heterosexual male dominance of the field."

Deadspin, Poynter, Philadelphia Magazine and Mashable, among others, picked up the story. In the face of considerable negative attention, ESPN removed the complaint option and apologized.

The first apology came in the form of a press release. The second, more personal apology came from Josh Krulewitz, ESPN's vice president of communications. Krulewitz explained that the option was a relic of years past. He said it was a terrible and regrettable decision, but he also reiterated ESPN's pioneering history, one that gave women the chance to call and report on all-male sporting events.

"I felt that he was sincerely sorry about what happened," Soisson says.

While the apology offered her some satisfaction, the whole experience left Soisson with lingering questions. For example, "is this actually a complaint of EPSN viewers?" she wonders.

Unfortunately, the answer isn't easily found. ESPN didn't disclose whether the "Dislike Female Commentators" option was widely used. But responses to Soisson's tweet evidenced the discontent that some ESPN viewers still have with female sports commentators.

While it's no surprise that there are living sexists, ESPN's devoted section gave viewers a tangible place to voice their discontent. "To create a space of any kind where people can complain about it, you are validating it as a complaint. You're basically telling people 'Here is a space for you to complain about this issue,' which is a non-issue," Gold says.

Soon after the female sportscasters flap, ESPN managed to offend another group in high-profile fashion. On February 18, an ESPN headline on a disappointing performance by overnight NBA sensation Jeremy Lin, who is Asian American, read "Chink in the Armor." The use of the slur triggered widespread outrage and got Anthony Federico, the editor who wrote it, fired.

A problem might be that sports journalism isn't taken as seriously as, for example, political journalism, Gold says. A macho approach to sports reporting might pave the way for mistakes of great magnitude, he speculates.

The distasteful complaint link and user comments echoed the sexist opinions that still exist in the world of sports. But while the comments might have angered and befuddled Soisson, they didn't wreck her dreams.

"I could be frustrated, but I'd rather use it as motivation," she says, adding that the contretemps was somewhat confounding but overall a good learning experience.

"I was so distracted by looking at what people were saying or tweeting at me, I was kind of consumed by it. It was hard to focus on other things. Everyday I thought it kind of blew over, but it would start up again," Soisson says. "I took a step back and realized if I want to make a career out of this, then I have to expect this."

Despite its role in the controversy, Soisson doesn't blame ESPN; rather she thinks the culprit is ongoing sexism generally.

Even though what happened was disheartening, Soisson says, it opened her eyes to a serious issue that's still at hand in sports journalism. And while she's glad her tweet shed light on an important topic, she isn't fazed by all the attention.

"I'm happy that the issue reached so many people," she says, "but I could care less that it had to do so much with me."