About News

In Brandon Miller Case, Blaming the Media Is Way Too Simple

Gamecock Central, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The University of Alabama men’s basketball program ended its season Friday having squandered its national championship chances and its good reputation. In the same process, the reputation of the news media took a thorough pounding, as well.

Many UA fans blamed the press — mostly the press outside of Tuscaloosa — for sparking national hatred of the program that showed itself in arena chants and on social media, culminating with death threats and armed security for star player Brandon Miller, who was part of the chain of events that led to the shooting death of a young mother. I got to wondering if the blame was valid.

This first requires recognizing that the news media didn’t all react to the story the same way and so can’t be lumped together. Some journalists, especially local ones, argued adamantly that Miller had done nothing wrong and that UA’s zero punishment was the right decision. On the other extreme, some commentators declared this the biggest disgrace in college sports history, warranting the end of Miller’s season, the firing of coach Nate Oats, and the suspension of the program while you’re at it.

The most clearly inexcusable conduct was the reports that couldn’t get the facts straight. More excusable, but still a target of criticism, was the accurate reporting of police accounts of the shooting that later seemed not to match everything that happened. It is becoming more common for news organizations that publish police statements about major cases to launch independent reporting to confirm or challenge those statements. (Tuscaloosa Patch was one that did that in this case.)

Against this backdrop, I wondered if the reporting and opinionating could have incited the venom of fans around the nation.

“Blame cannot simply be assigned to media; however, the media can certainly play a role in triggering anger, outrage and other strong emotions,” said my department colleague Dr. Scott Parrott, a sports fan who teaches what academia calls “media effects.”

In an email, he cited “media personalities who make livings on controversy.” Their aim is conflict. “The approach divides sports fans into ‘us’ against ‘them,’ which elicits even stronger emotions and divides us. Politicians use the same tactic.”

Other factors are at work, too, Parrott said, naming social media and the intense nature of sports fandom. “Debates over morality and justice carry over into social media, where people can comment under the cloak of anonymity — we have all seen how poisonous social media can be. When you throw in fanship, it can become an emotional powder keg in which empathy and rational thought disappear, and people are so angry they threaten the life of a young man.”

For the Saturday NCAA games in Birmingham, I sat among the avid and the rabid. And I was reminded how mean-spirited some sports fans can be. The news media and the university certainly aren’t blameless in the saga of UA’s basketball season, but there’s a whole lot more going on than that.


Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.