How the media covered the death of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant

Your Monday Poynter Report

January 27, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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How the media reacted to Kobe’s death

For many, not just sports fans, Sunday will go down as one of those “Where were you?” days. Where were you when you learned that former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash?

On such days, when we are searching for information and perspective and someone to just help us make sense of such stunning news, we turn to television.

And it’s on a day such as Sunday when ESPN proves again that it’s far more than a sports network that only covers games. It showed once again that it is a network full of elite journalists and analysts who can take astounding breaking news and quickly provide comprehensive coverage that stands above all others.

The death of 41-year-old Bryant and eight others, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, was a story with many tentacles. Bryant was more than just a basketball star. He was a larger-than-life figure, demonstrated by the fact that he was known by even non-sports fans simply by one name: Kobe.

He was bigger than the game, and his influence stretched beyond basketball. He was a husband and father. He had transitioned into the media world, producing an Oscar-winning animated short film based a poem he wrote about basketball. His transformed the game. Even though he retired four seasons ago, he remained one of the most popular athletes on the planet.

To sum up a transformative figure like that in a matter of seconds, with no warning, is a task that tests the journalistic chops of any news organization. But ESPN just didn’t cover the story, it did so expertly.

For starters — and to be frank — ESPN initially bungled the news. Just as the story broke around 3 p.m. Eastern, ESPN (and its Disney-partner ABC) was broadcasting the NFL’s Pro Bowl — an all-star game that is, essentially, a meaningless exhibition. The awful decision was made to have Pro Bowl announcer Joe Tessitore break the news to viewers. That was the wrong call.

Tessitore should have been instructed to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to send it back to ESPN headquarters for breaking news.” Then the news could have been delivered from an anchor behind a desk instead of having Tessitore and broadcast partner Booger McFarland in the incredibly awkward position of delivering such shocking and sobering news while calling a meaningless football game.

No one would have blamed ESPN if it had broken away from the Pro Bowl for good to carry the Bryant news, but the network stuck with the game. ESPN took some heat on social media for that decision, but ESPN/ABC did have an obligation with the NFL to show the Pro Bowl.

So ESPN moved the coverage to ESPN2. (When the Pro Bowl ended at 5:38 p.m. Eastern, ESPN went to Bryant coverage and then went to its live coverage of an NBA game at 6 p.m.)

ESPN2’s coverage was superb. It brought in its array of on-air talent such as Michael Wilbon, Stephen A. Smith, Jay Williams, Rachel Nichols and NBA reporters Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne — two veterans who are as good at covering the NBA as any reporters out there covering any beat, sports or otherwise.

ESPN2 then went above and beyond, interviewing film director Spike Lee and Bryant’s former teammate, Gary Payton, who broke down on the air.

Meanwhile, it mixed in the actual accident news with reports from the scene and the possible causes. It ran old interviews and highlights of Bryant.

The news was so horrific that it feels inappropriate to laud anything about the day, but ESPN’s coverage accomplished its objective, which was to help its views comprehend what felt incomprehensible.

Other Kobe coverage


Los Angeles Lakers jersey numbers belonging to retired NBA player Kobe Bryant hang inside Staples Center. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

ESPN was not alone with wall-to-wall coverage of the Bryant news. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all went to 100% Bryant coverage with one network doing admirably well and another falling woefully short.

Whenever comparing CNN and Fox News, you run the risk of alienating readers who believe you’re biased for or against a particular network. So I think it’s important to point out that politics have nothing to do with the opinion that CNN’s coverage of the Bryant news was far better than Fox News, which came off as simply ill-equipped to cover such a story.

It felt as if Fox News’ rolodex didn’t have the requisite names to call upon to comment, particularly in the critical first couple of hours after the news broke, when people are craving information. Veteran NBA reporter Jim Gray, a longtime family friend of Bryant who offered some poignant memories, was its main commentator along with with a sportswriter (The Athletic’s Joe Vardon) and NBA agent (Anthony Tall) who are not particularly well-known among most sports fans. The best coverage on Fox News, aside from Gray’s heartfelt commentary, was when the network decided to go to the live feed from its Los Angeles affiliate KTTV. Later, Fox News was able to get a couple of notable voices, including NBA legends Jerry West and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, but by then I’m guessing most had turned the channel. Perhaps realizing that, Fox News eventually abandoned its Bryant coverage and went back to regular programming, including “The Next Revolution With Steve Hilton,” which stuck to political talk.

But credit CNN for some excellent hustle. It tracked down David Lasman, one of Bryant’s friends and high school teammates, as well as respected voices such as Bob Costas and TNT basketball analyst Kenny Smith. In fact, Costas, who hosted NBC’s NBA coverage for many years, came in studio to add perspective. In addition, CNN covered the actual accident, too, with especially sharp comments from transportation analyst Mary Schiavo, the former inspector general of the United States Department of Transportation.

The others …

NBC and CBS were limited in what they could do when the news first broke. CBS talked about the news during its PGA Tour coverage, while NBC briefly broke into its U.S. figure skating coverage to announce the news, but then went back to figure skating while sending those interested in Bryant coverage to MSNBC.

The L.A Times’ free coverage

The Los Angeles Times, normally a subscription website, offered free Kobe Bryant coverage Sunday. It was excellent. For an example, start here. And then read this column by sports columnist Bill Plaschke, who wrote, “Kobe Bryant is gone, and those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write for this newspaper, and I still don’t believe them as I’m writing them.”

The controversial side of Kobe Bryant

There is one more aspect to the Kobe Bryant story that was largely ignored Sunday among the glowing tributes. In 2003, Bryant was accused of sexual assault. The case was dismissed when the accuser refused to testify. She had filed a separate civil suit against Bryant and had agreed to the dismissal of the criminal case if Bryant apologized. In a statement at the time, Bryant apologized to the woman and said, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”

How should the media have handled that part of the story? On one hand, Bryant was never convicted of a crime for an incident that happened 17 years ago. Since then, Bryant, by all accounts, has lived an exemplary life with the reputation of being a good family man and a social advocate who has fought for women’s inclusion in sports.

Yes, the sexual assault allegations are a chapter in Bryant’s story, but should they be mentioned on a day when he lost his life alongside his daughter?

I asked Poynter senior vice president Kelly McBride, the chair of  the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, how the media should handle that aspect of the story.

“I think it depends on how comprehensive the piece is,” McBride told me. “There are so many stories to tell about Kobe Bryant. Certainly for a sweeping comprehensive piece on his entire life, you would have to mention it. But frankly, I’m glad that I don’t have to make the decision because it’s a tough call. It’s a part of this story, but it’s hard to figure exactly where it goes? Bottom half? Separate story?”

Charles Pierce alluded to this topic for Esquire. Borrowing from Jim Carroll’s classic autobiographical novel “The Basketball Diaries,” Pierce wrote:

“Kobe Bryant died on Sunday with one of the young women in his life, and how you will come to measure his life has to be judged by how deeply you believe that he corrected his grievous fault through the life he lived afterwards, and how deeply you believe that he corrected that fault, immediately and beautifully, and in midair.”

More coverage thoughts


Host Alicia Keys speaks during a tribute to Kobe Bryant at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

  • TMZ broke the news that Bryant was killed. It was criticized during an initial news conference by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who said, “There was wide speculation as to who their identities are, however it would be entirely inappropriate right now to identify anyone by name, until the coroner has made the identification through their very deliberative process, and until they’ve made notifications to next of kin. It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved ones perished and you learned about it from TMZ. That is just wholly inappropriate. So we’re not going to be going there.”

  • The Grammy Awards opened Sunday night’s ceremony by remembering Kobe Bryant.

  • ABC aired a one-hour special — “Kobe Bryant. Death of a Legend” — at 10 p.m. Eastern, which aired instead of a rerun of “Shark Tank” and also was simulcast on ESPN. It was anchored by ABC “Good Morning America” co-hosts Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan and ESPN correspondent Tom Rinaldi.

 

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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