Reporters who show bias fail their sources — and their profession

September 13, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

Anonymous Twitter trolls and the president of the United States have a few things in common.

Each has attacked the media.

And each in their own way has forced reporters, from national political columnists to sportswriters, to commit to higher standards of journalism in the face of their withering criticism.

But it can be a hard lesson to learn. Just ask Omar Kelly, the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Miami Dolphins beat writer after his embarrassing series of tweets this week.

It started with the news on Tuesday that New England Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown had been accused of sexual assault by a woman who filed suit in Florida. Naturally, Twitter was immediately abuzz with opinions. Was Brown a rapist? Was the accuser a liar?

That’s where Kelly made a mistake Wednesday: He took sides. He acted like a fan, not a journalist. He attacked the victim instead of seeking out the facts as a journalist should do.

“If someone raped me in May I would have called the police in May, not issue (sic) a civil suit in September, when football season arrived. Also, if they ‘sexually assaulted’ me I’m not going back to work with them after they allegedly apologize,” Kelly tweeted in a series of since-deleted tweets that were screenshot here.

He posted several more tweets defending his opinion and suggesting the accuser was trying to shake down Brown for money.

Kelly was rightfully slammed on Twitter by those who are knowledgeable about rape victims and the reason women don’t always report assaults right away (see related graphic below). The condemnation was swift and plentiful – even the editor-in-chief of the Sun Sentinel publicly reprimanded him on Twitter.

“The Sun Sentinel does not condone public shaming of alleged rape victims. Omar soon will have a response that reflects the education he’s received today. Thanks for weighing in,” Julie Anderson tweeted.

Eventually, Kelly deleted the offending tweets and issued an apology of sorts. But then he went back to reporting on the Miami Dolphins.

That was a baffling decision by Sun Sentinel editors. After all, Kelly made clear that he would be too biased to cover a similar scandal should it involve a member of the Dolphins. So why did his editors believe he should continue to cover the Dolphins and the NFL?

I ask the question because I know what’s at stake.

Suppose Kelly was covering a different team. Suppose it turned out the owner of that team was sexually harassing his employees. Suppose it went on for years. Suppose the victims wanted to stop the harassment from taking place, but their boss was a powerful man in the community and they were afraid to confront him. The accusation alone, and the potential negative media coverage, could break them. Instead, they were paid to go away quietly.

In the end, their only hope of stopping the abuse from continuing – and preventing more women from becoming victims — was to try to get the story out.

They would have to trust a reporter.

That’s what happened in Charlotte, North Carolina, a few years ago. Panthers team owner Jerry Richardson was harassing multiple female employees and had paid off numerous victims to keep them quiet as he moved on to other women. It went on for years until one day a victim decided to take a chance and trust a reporter with her story.

That reporter was me.

I was a journalist based in Charlotte at the time and a former Panthers beat writer who had followed the team off and on for years as a freelance reporter for The New York Times.

Years earlier, I had reported on the rape accusation against members of Duke’s lacrosse team.

That false accusation impacted reporting on my story about the Panthers’ owner. I worked diligently with L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated to seek out corroboration, other victim accounts and documented evidence of a non-disclosure agreement. Finally, on Dec. 17, 2017, “Sources: Jerry Richardson, Panthers Have Made Multiple Confidential Payouts for Workplace Misconduct, Including Sexual Harassment and Use of a Racial Slur’’ was posted on SI.com. That night, Richardson, the founding owner of the franchise, announced he was selling the Panthers.

He would no longer run the team.

That finally put an end to the harassment of Panthers employees. But it never would have happened if these sources hadn’t trusted a reporter with their story.

Journalists who demonstrate their bias shouldn’t be allowed to continue on their beats, no matter how good their stories are or how many clicks they get.

They run the risk of ruining their reputations and hurting our profession at a time when we need to be above reproach — every one of us.

Viv Bernstein is a North Carolina-based writer and former staff sports reporter for the Detroit Free Press, Hartford Courant and other media outlets. She covered news and sports for numerous publications from The New York Times to Sports Illustrated for over 30 years. Bernstein recently switched to politics and was communications director for a candidate for Congress in 2018.

Why survivors delay reporting or don’t report assault

From Poynter staff

Research has shown that rape is the most under-reported violent crime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. An estimated 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police, according to U.S. Department of Justice research.

And the survivor’s relationship with the offender has an impact on whether they report the assault. When the offender was a friend or acquaintance, 82% of sexual assaults were not reported, according to the DOJ research.

national survey on violence against women found that sexual assault survivors did not report to law enforcement for multiple reasons, including: 22% cited fear of the perpetrator as their reason for not reporting, and 18% of women said they were too ashamed or embarrassed. Other women surveyed felt like either the incident wasn’t a crime or police matter, or felt the police couldn’t do anything, or wouldn’t believe them.

“Most victims do not report their sexual assault to the police, and when they do, it is usually after some delay,” the nonprofit End Violence Against Women International notes. “This is clearly in contrast with the stereotype that ‘real rape’ is reported immediately, and it challenges the idea that non-reporting or delayed reporting are reasons for viewing the report with suspicion.”

Seeking help

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, it’s never too late to get help. Call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org to chat anonymously one-on-one with a trained staff member. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which provides free, confidential support for survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones. Los recursos están disponibles en español en rainn.org/es.