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Media response to the death of Kobe Bryant

This is an excerpt from Sports, Media, and Society by Kevin Hull.

On the morning of January 26, 2020, the Los Angeles 9-1-1 center began receiving calls informing them that ­there had been an aircraft crash in Calabasas, California (Associated Press, 2021). Less than an hour ­later, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department published a tweet that confirmed that it was a ­helicopter that had gone down in the mountainous area (LA County Sheriffs, 2020). Months ­later, it would be revealed that heavy fog had played a role in the crash, as the ­pilot strug­gled to navigate in the low visibility (Toropin et al., 2020). However, at the time, the Sheriff’s Department was still working to determine what happened and attempting to reach the wreckage site to see if ­there ­were any survivors. As the deputies ­were still at the scene assessing the damage, a tweet from the celebrity gossip website TMZ delivered the startling news: “BREAKING: Kobe Bryant Has Died In A ­Helicopter Crash” (TMZ, 2020).

Initial Reporting

Shortly ­after the initial report from TMZ, other news outlets began publishing their own updates on the situation. However, the early hours of the reporting ­after that first tweet could best be summarized by the word confusion, as while almost every­one agreed that Kobe Bryant was riding in the ­helicopter, ­there was a ­great deal of disagreement as to who ­else had died in the crash (Loveless, 2020; Tracy, 2020).

On ABC News, reporter Matt Gutman stated that Kobe and all four of his ­children ­were killed in the crash, while competitor NBC News reported that five ­people had been killed (Loveless, 2020; NBC News, 2020; Tracy, 2020). ­There was widespread speculation on social media that Rick Fox, a former teammate of Bryant’s on the Lakers, was also killed in the crash, but a ­television host put a stop to that rumor by stating he had just texted with Fox, who confirmed that he was very much alive (Greenberg, 2020). Even the United States president, Donald Trump, tweeted about the crash, writing that Bryant and three ­others had been killed (Tracy, 2020). An ABC News reporter tweeted that the news outlet had now confirmed that none of Bryant’s four ­daughters ­were on board, while less than one minute ­later, TMZ tweeted that one ­daughter had died in the crash (Franco, 2020; TMZ Sports, 2020). ­Those reports, along with ­others, led to a ­great deal of confusion as seemingly every­one had dif­fer­ent information. Less than 90 minutes ­after TMZ sent the original tweet revealing that Kobe Bryant had died in a ­helicopter crash, the following updates ­were on social media:

  • Five ­people are dead
  • All four ­daughters are dead
  • Five ­people on board
  • Former teammate Rick Fox was also on board
  • Former teammate Rick Fox was not on board
  • None of Bryant’s ­daughters ­were on board
  • One of Bryant’s ­daughters was on board
  • Bryant and three ­others killed
  • Bryant, his ­daughter, and another player and their parent ­were aboard

It is hard to ignore the fact that some of ­these reports contradict each other. As one Twitter user pointed out: “Kobe, Rick Fox, a ­pilot, and 4 ­daughters ­doesn’t equal 5 ­people. Someone information is wrong” (Ibrahimovic, 2020). It would ultimately turn out that many of ­these initial reports ­were wrong.

The Facts Come Out

While ­there was much early speculation about who was on the ­helicopter, it was not ­until ­later in the day that the entire list of ­those on the trip was released. Ultimately, ­there ­were nine ­people who died on board the flight that was traveling to a girls’ basketball game. ­Those nine ­were

  • Kobe Bryant, 41 years old,
  • Gianna (Gigi) Bryant, 13 years old,
  • Sarah Chester, 45 years old,
  • Payton Chester, 13 years old,
  • Keri Altobelli, 46 years old,
  • John Altobelli, 56 years old,
  • Alyssa Altobelli, 14 years old,
  • Christina Mauser, 38 years old, and
  • Ara Zobayan, 50 years old.

­There had been rampant speculation in the short time following the crash that the entire Bryant ­family was on board, but Kobe and Gigi ­were the only members of the ­family that perished in the crash. Payton was the ­daughter of Sarah Chester, Alyssa was the ­daughter of Keri and John Altobelli, and both ­were basketball teammates of Gigi’s. Christina Mauser was an assistant coach on the girls’ team and Ara Zobayan was the ­pilot of the ­helicopter (Times Staff, 2020).

Retractions from the Media

Once the official rec­ord of who was on board the ­helicopter was released, many media members had to make retractions based on their previous reporting. Perhaps most prominently, ABC News’s Matt Gutman, the reporter who stated that all four of the Bryant ­daughters ­were on board the ­helicopter, issued an apology and correction to his story both on ­television and on social media, writing on Twitter: “I apologize to Kobe’s ­family, friends and our viewers” (Gutman, 2020). One sportscaster pointed out the vari­ous incorrect reports on his Twitter account, comparing the ­mistakes from ABC, Fox, and TMZ. He wrote, “I hope some ­people lose their jobs ­today for rushing reports” (Doughty, 2020). While Gutman was not fired for his error, ABC News did suspend him for an undisclosed amount of time, a decision he seemed to agree with: “We are in the business of holding ­people accountable, and I hold myself accountable for a terrible ­mistake, which I deeply regret” (Battaglio, 2020, para. 6).

Police Procedure

It is difficult to determine how so many media outlets made ­mistakes in their reporting in the first minutes following the ­helicopter crash, but it is pos­si­ble that several issues could have been avoided had they followed the typical protocol when reporting on deaths. Traditionally, law enforcement does not release the names of ­those who have died in accidents ­until the families of ­those affected have been notified. The reasoning ­behind this practice is that law enforcement would rather be the ­people delivering this horrible news in a face-­to-­face scenario as opposed to having someone find out a loved one had died by watching the news. The news media usually also follows this protocol, and they typically refrain from announcing deaths ­until the police have given them an indication that the ­family had been notified. For example, the Los Angeles Times acknowledged the ­helicopter crash in early tweets, but did not confirm that Byrant was on board, citing the fact that the victims had not been publicly identified (Tracy, 2020).

However, ­there is ample evidence that TMZ reported the news before the families had been notified. Vanessa, Kobe’s wife, would ­later say that a ­family assistant was the one who told her that ­there had been a crash involving the ­helicopter. As Vanessa was trying to call Kobe to see if he was okay, her phone began receiving notifications that her husband had died in the crash (Abrams and Draper, 2021). This much is clear: The news was not first given to the families by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In a press conference shortly ­after the crash, the sheriff confirmed that ­there ­were nine ­people on board the ­helicopter but would not identify them. He said:

­There is wide speculation of who the identities are, however, it would be wildly inappropriate right now to identify anyone by name ­until the coroner has made the identification through their very deliberate ­process and ­they’ve made the notification to the next of kin. It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one was perished, and you learned about it from TMZ. (WTHR​.­com staff, 2020, para. 6)

Another member of Sheriff’s Department would ­later 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 of the loss via media Breaks my heart” (Murakami, 2020).

TMZ

While TMZ was the first to report the news of Bryant’s death, it came with public criticism beyond even the comments from the authorities. However, before addressing that blowback, it is impor­tant to understand the history of the outlet and where it stands in the world of media and journalism. TMZ started as an entertainment news website in 2005, with a ­television show (TMZ on TV) following in 2007. The initial focus of both TMZ​.­com and TMZ on TV was celebrity gossip and paparazzi-­style photos. A reliance on ­these types of stories put TMZ in the category of a tabloid journalism outlet, which is a label given to media companies that focus on sensational and outlandish stories that have ­little impact on society as a ­whole. Therefore, TMZ is not considered a “serious” journalism outlet and has been long criticized for the type of stories they report, how they get ­those stories, and the lack of sensitivity they often display when reporting on celebrity deaths. Despite that negative reputation, it is impossible to ignore that the website and ­television show are both incredibly ­popular with millions of devoted readers and watchers. Additionally, TMZ has gotten its share of “scoops” before other, more reputable news outlets, including most famously when it was the first to announce that legendary singer Michael Jackson had died (Darcy, 2020).

However, TMZ’s rush to be the primary source in the Bryant story may have come at a price to its already tarnished reputation. ­After the Sheriff’s Department indicated that they had not been able to contact Bryant’s ­family before TMZ announced his death, the reporting practices of the website ­were heavi­ly criticized. Actress Ellen Pompeo asked her followers on social media to sign a petition to get the ­television show canceled (D’Zurilla, 2020), while ­others focused on TMZ’s practice of paying for stories, something that is frowned upon by most traditional newsrooms (Darcy, 2020). TMZ ­founder Harvey Levin was quick to defend the reporting of his team, insisting that before they published the tweet, his staff had talked to ­people close to Bryant’s ­family and ­were assured that Vanessa was already aware that Kobe and Gigi had died. However, it was not just the Bryant ­family on board the ­helicopter that day. When pressed in a radio interview about the ethics of publishing the news before the other families of ­those in the ­helicopter could be notified, Levin seemed to admit fault by saying, “that is a fair point” (Ritschel, 2020).

Additional Media Coverage

While the story of the ­helicopter crash was understandably major news on the day of the accident, the story did not quickly fade from the public interest. With Bryant’s status as one of the most famous athletes in the modern era, news outlets continued to do follow-up reports in the days and months ­after the crash. As the stories moved beyond the crash itself, how to discuss aspects of Bryant’s non-­basketball life ­were met with an intense debate. While he was praised for his role as a ­father, his past transgressions ­were impossible for many to ignore.

Bryant’s Past

Bryant ­will almost certainly be remembered as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He finished as one of the NBA’s top scorers, won numerous championships, and was destined to be a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. However, in the days following his death, some outwardly wondered if the sexual assault charge against Bryant should be listed as a part of his legacy. As one writer from The Washington Post commented, “Should it be ignored, as many fans would have preferred? Or clearly acknowledged? Was this ‘not the right moment’? Or was it the only moment ­there is—­when a superstar’s ­career and life ­were being assessed?” (­Sullivan, 2020, para. 16). As several noted afterward, Bryant left ­behind a complicated legacy. A New York Daily News columnist wrote a remembrance that was filled with on-­court accolades and praise for his post-­basketball life, but also: “The worst moment of his public life did not define the rest of his life. But it also cannot be ignored” (Lupica, 2020, para. 5). Similarly, sportswriter Christine Brennan tweeted: “Kobe Bryant’s ­career was majestic, his loss immea­sur­able. And yes, the very serious allegation of sexual assault in 2003 is part of his story” (Brennan, 2020). Responses to that tweet ­were divided, with some agreeing that it needed to be mentioned, while ­others questioned if immediately ­after Bryant’s death was the proper time to bring up the incidents from his past.

Shortly ­after the ­helicopter crash, Felicia Sonmez, a reporter from The Washington Post, tweeted a link to a 2016 story that had many of the details about the sexual assault allegations from 2003. The backlash came fast, and Sonmez ­later posted a screenshot of her email inbox that contained angry messages from Bryant supporters. However, by the end of the day, it was more than just random Twitter users who ­were upset with the reporter’s tweets. The paper’s executive editor sent an email to Sonmez, in which he wrote, “A real lack of judgement to tweet this. Please stop. ­You’re hurting this institution by ­doing this” (Abrams, 2020, para. 4). ­Later that night, Sonmez was suspended by the newspaper, a decision that was widely panned by her coworkers (Abrams, 2020). Ultimately, it was not her tweet linking to the news story that got her suspended, but instead the screenshot of her email inbox that displayed names and email addresses of ­those who had contacted her. Leaders from The Washington Post said that screenshot was a violation of the newspaper’s social media policy (Keys, 2020).

The death of Kobe Bryant was not the first time, nor ­will it be the last, in which the media strug­gled with telling the full life story of someone who had just passed away. While Bryant was unquestionably an outstanding basketball player, the allegations of sexual assault ­were a part of his past. Diehard Bryant fans almost certainly did not want to read about his previous arrest in the early moments following his death, but media members cannot simply ignore the past. In instances like this one, it may be a situation in which it is difficult to please every­one in the audience.

#GirlDad

While the media and the public debated how to properly address (or not) the sexual assault charge, a dif­fer­ent aspect of Bryant’s life was almost universally praised. It all seemingly started during a segment on ESPN’s SportsCenter, in which anchor Elle Duncan shared her own personal story about the basketball legend. In a commentary that was approximately 90 seconds long, Duncan told the story of the one time she met Bryant. She was pregnant at the time and, according to her story, Bryant excitedly asked her if she was having a girl or a boy. When the journalist responded that it was ­going to be a girl, Bryant responded that “girls are the best” and “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad” (ESPN, 2020, :28; :58). As her commentary on SportsCenter continued, Duncan began to tear up, before ending with, “I suppose the only small source of comfort for me is knowing that he died ­doing what he loved the most: Being a dad; being a girl dad” (ESPN, 2020, 1:23).

Duncan’s story, while focused on Bryant, soon became something bigger. The segment became the start of the “Girl Dad” movement, as ­fathers of girls began posting photos and stories on social media with the hashtag #GirlDad (Kimble, 2020). A Twitter spokesman said the hashtag had been used almost 200,000 times in the first few days ­after the crash, with famous athletes, musicians, actors, and regular, everyday dads chiming in (Respers France and Kaur, 2020). Bryant’s ­widow, Vanessa, even used the phrase “girl dad” in her eulogy (Kimble, 2020).

While ­there are only a select handful of ­people who ­will ever play professional basketball, and an even smaller number who played the game at Bryant’s level, ­there are millions of ­people who are a #GirlDad. This trait of Bryant’s was one of the few ele­ments of his life in which many could relate to a superstar on the same level. That might be why Duncan’s commentary became a viral sensation. For many, it was not Bryant the basketball superstar who had passed away, but a dad of four girls—­something that many could identify with.

Kobe Bryant attends a Lakers game with his ­daughter Gianna Bryant in November of 2019.

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