The question posed to two classes of college journalism, film and public relations students was this: If you’re the editor of the Los Angeles Times, and you’re directing first-day, deadline coverage of the shocking death of former LA Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others, do you mention the rape case?
I got a yes – after 10 minutes of noes. The majority view was that discussion of Bryant’s 2003 felony sexual assault charge would be warranted in a few days – after a respectful period had passed to allow the family, the local community and adoring fans to grieve and pay tribute. I didn’t feel then, or now, that I should criticize as journalistically irresponsible any attempt to think ethically and compassionately about a publication decision and who might be harmed by it. We need more of that in media. And it certainly seems out of proportion to brand such a decision as irresponsible after some far more egregious examples of irresponsibility by professional media outlets reporting on the story.
Still, the decision of some news organizations to initially omit this chapter of Bryant’s life, or to give it a mention so brief that it smacked of forced obligation, seems like a failure. (Another example of skittishness: Before reversing itself, the Washington Post suspended a reporter who tweeted a link to an old article about the case. The Post has not been forthcoming as to reasons, but my belief is that Post management decided the reporter’s unilateral actions called a greater degree of attention to the case than the editors had agreed on in their carefully calibrated editorial judgment.)
It is certainly good and necessary to think of all the people who might be harmed or angered by dredging up 17-year-old history. Many media caught flak, including death threats, on social media for even brief references, which is not surprising considering society’s habit of glorifying sports stars and absolving them of their misdeeds. It’s easy to overlook, though, that not presenting a complete picture has repercussions, too. In seeing all the unmitigated adoration for Bryant, don’t the victim in this case and all sexual assault victims feel as if their trauma has been ignored or belittled? Nancy Armour of USA Today, for one, makes that point persuasively.
There are also repercussions for any news organization that paints a partial picture, even if that decision is made with reason and good intentions. While many readers and viewers expect a hero portrait, some others will ask: If you are protecting Kobe Bryant’s reputation, what other powerful figure’s reputation are you protecting? Other sports stars and celebrities? Politicians whose views you like? Business people who buy ads? The answer may be no one, but it’s the mere wondering by the audience that does the damage to a news organization’s integrity.
Of course, the black marks in any person’s history need to be evaluated for relevance and severity to know how much of a place they warrant in a biography, be it an obituary or not. In this case, there is no question that Bryant’s actions in that Colorado hotel room in 2003 were serious and remained impactful on his life until the end. This was not a case of confused communications; the victim suffered significant physical injury. In legal proceedings, Bryant’s attorneys engaged in aggressive victim blaming. The 19-year-old woman had to be hospitalized and eventually decided not to testify, leading prosecutors to drop the case. Bryant never changed his stance that he thought the encounter was consensual, acknowledging only that he eventually came to understand why the victim did not view it that way.
The case helped to create the person the world eulogized last week. He created the Black Mamba nickname in response, because the name Kobe Bryant had become too tainted. His advocacy for many good social causes sprang from multiple motives; desire for a rehabilitated image was one of them. Though some commentators did, I do not doubt the impact and sincerity of his charitable work. He advocated for women’s athletics, LGBTQ rights and other causes. He was a sincere campaigner for healthy environments for youth athletes, working with the Project Play program sponsored by the Aspen Institute, whose editorial director is my friend and former colleague Jon Solomon.
Some of the more extreme social media commentators argued that Bryant was a rapist and so deserved no accolades in last week’s press coverage. That unconscionable episode of his life shouldn’t cancel the acknowledgments of his athletic achievements and good works. It just needed a whole lot more attention, reminding us bluntly that this was a man who made many people’s lives better, and ruined others’. Even in death, as kind as it seems, to neglect the whole portrait of a newsmaker or other person of prominence is a disservice to journalism, to the truth and to the usually mixed reality of the human story.
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 shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.