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The Kobe Bryant case is a reminder that news that hasn’t been confirmed shouldn’t be reported
For me, it was just a regular Sunday afternoon at home. It’s usually a ritual of mine to take a glorious nap after church, but this day I was unable to. As I switched into my pyjamas and got in bed, a loved one texted me saying “Kobe Bryant just died… My heart is f****d up.”
For a minute, I didn’t know where I was anymore. I froze for a good 10 seconds and started asking myself questions like, “Was he ill? How could I have possibly not known that Kobe was sick? How did he die?” I put on my journalism hat and went straight to Google. I typed in the search bar “Kobe Bryant”and the first thing I saw was TMZ’s headline ‘Kobe Bryant dead, dies in helicopter crash’ posted 12 minutes earlier. I instantly thought it was fake because TMZ broke the news and TMZ sort of has a reputation. I gave myself a moment before logging onto Twitter. Then when I did — reality hit me.
The monumental Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard, Kobe Bean Bryant had truly died. And to add salt to the wound, an hour later it was confirmed that the basketball legend’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna Marie-Onmore Bryant, died alongside her father and seven other passengers. I spent my entire day glued to my phone and laptop, scrolling through Facebook and Twitter feeds to keep myself up to date with what was happening. I had so many questions. But I also spent my time criticizing the reporting I witnessed— and let me tell you, journalism still needs work.
The news undeniably overwhelmed the entire world and with emotions running high, the last thing people needed was inaccurate reporting. A lot of news outlets were rushing to get the scoop on Bryant’s death, which resulted in a failure of responsible journalism. Additionally, a lot of misleading and unconfirmed information spread across the platform by verified users, which also led readers astray.
Initial reports stated that Bryant’s crash involved five people on board and none of the passengers survived the accident. This then resulted in several speculations on who the other victims were. Moments after Bryant’s death a lot of American news outlets began tweeting that Bryant was with all four of his daughters when the helicopter crashed. ABC News correspondent Matt Gutman, wrongly reported Bryant’s daughters — Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri — were in the helicopter with their father, leaving people to think all four of Bryant’s daughters died as well.
ABC never confirmed with a credible source. CBS also reported the same information. A few moments later, KARK-TV and Fox 16 News reporter, Alexis Wainwright, confirmed that neither Bryant’s wife nor his daughters were on the helicopter, prior to the devastating confirmation of Gianna’s death.
Viewers then became more confused when there were reports that former Lakers player and longtime friend of Bryant, Rick Fox, was in the helicopter when it crashed. Many began questioning whether the information was true or false and waited until a credible source confirmed the reporting.
Moments later, Fox’s attorney released a statement that his client was alive, well and not among the passengers on the helicopter. In fact, Fox was at home with his children. In a recent interview, Fox shared the emotional impact his family had after seeing the incorrect news of his death surfacing on social media. He reported receiving several calls from his friends, mother and brother. “My family went through, in the midst of this, something I couldn’t have imagined them experiencing,” said Fox. “It was hard to deal with because it shook a lot of people in my life.”
News organizations should be held accountable for misleading their audience with unverifiable information, not only does it affect an audience but it also affects families and close friends, as seen with Fox.
Ryerson journalism professor Ivor Shapiro says it is the basic duty of a journalist to verify information prior to or while reporting. “It’s not a very complicated ethical issue at all,” said Shapiro. “The single most important duty of a journalist is to tell the truth. This is as basic as a doctor is supposed to try to heal or a lawyer is supposed to advocate for their client.”
What shocked me the most out of this coverage, was seeing two reputable organizations such as BBC News and Breakfast Television Toronto, make mistakes that shook me. BBC News used footage of LeBron James instead of Bryant and later apologized for misuse of proper coverage. Breakfast Television Toronto did the same in a tweet moments after the news broke. The headline mentioned the late basketball player’s name but with a picture of James, instead. To make matters worse, you could see the name “James,” since he wore his jersey. Breakfast Television Toronto deleted the tweet immediately after I called them out on it. But they never apologized. The mistake was clear. Do they think that since Bryant and James are both big black men in the NBA, that they’re the same person? This sort of mistake becomes associated with racism and ignorance, and a simple Google reverse image search would have saved them from this mistake.
Journalists should not report information they are unsure of, just to be the first to break it. Instead, once they receive breaking news, reporters need to tell their audience they are working on evidence and confirmation of a report, rather than not saying anything which gives the impression of lacking knowledge.
Regarding the information received about the four daughters, Shapiro suggests news outlets should have said: “We’ve verified Kobe Bryant is dead. There are reports that other members of the family may have been involved. We have to verify that.”
Another problem viewers had with the reporting of Bryant’s death, was TMZ’s speed of breaking the news before the family was notified. The Los Angeles County sheriffs were also disappointed with the act. TMZ confirmed the news of the 41-year-old basketball star’s death, a little over an hour after the police said they received reports of a downed aircraft. The police’s intentions were to notify the family first, but TMZ broke the news before they were able to.
During a press conference, the LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, said it’s “wholly inappropriate” to find out about the death of your loved one online. LA County undersheriff Tim Murakami commented as well on TMZ’s fast reporting in a tweet: “I understand getting the scoop but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear the loss via media. Breaks my heart.”
TMZ was under serious fire. Many viewers were unhappy and shared their thoughts on Twitter. They questioned whether this sort of reporting is appropriate in journalism.
The founder of TMZ, Harvey Levin, said in a recent interview with Fox News that he spoke with the people of Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy camp and they confirmed his death. Levin also defended his organization’s decision to break the news. “The issue is… how long do you hold it?”
Ryerson professor Lisa Taylor, a former lawyer and CBC journalist, agrees that this act might have been insensitive, but says since Bryant was a well-known public figure, it’s only fair that the news of his death got broadcast. “I think it’s reasonable to say that people who make their living off being public figures, they and their families around them should have a much lesser expectation of privacy,” said Taylor. “This is where business pressure beats professional practice every day… because we have so much data that tells us ‘whoever breaks this story first, tends to get a greater share of the traffic from what follows.’”
In 2014, when Levin was asked how his organization received news so rapidly, he said: “We’re a news operation. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do as a news operation, is chase down stories. And it always kind of amuses me when people ask that question. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? I mean, that is the job.”
Based on personal experiences, journalism is a difficult job and it definitely takes time to craft it. The mistakes witnessed on Twitter and Facebook that Sunday afternoon were ones I wasn’t expecting, especially from reputable sources that people like myself go to for news.
I hope the criticism by viewers online is a lesson for the many news organizations that faced backlash for improperly reporting and misleading their audiences on Bryant’s death. Journalism has no value if an audience does not trust the reporters. To keep flourishing in our respective fields, we need to ensure that outlets are reporting the most accurate information.
As the late and great Kobe Bryant would say himself, Mamba out.