Note: An edited version of this blog item appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 3, 2020.
The controversy over the suspension and rapid reinstatement of a Washington Post reporter after a social media firestorm over coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death illustrates all too well where we are in the passion and often bad decision making of the digital age. In the hours after the initial report that the NBA legend had died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, reporter Felicia Sonmez sent a tweet with a link to a story on a years-old sexual assault allegation.
There is a fundamental journalistic issue that has vexed obituary writers for generations. When a person dies, the general rule is to speak kindly and with reverence. Yet, many who die have bad things in their past.
Bryant in 2003 was accused of sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel employee in Edwards, Colo., not far from the celebrated ski areas of Vail and Beaver Creek. The criminal charges eventually were dropped. A civil lawsuit resulted in an undisclosed settlement. Bryant maintained that the sex was consensual. It should be noted that Bryant in 2001 had married Vanessa Lane, the mother of his four children. One of the daughters, Gianna, 13, also died in the crash, as did seven others.
The tweet by Sonmez linked to a Daily Beast story published in 2016, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” In an email sent to her and later released by Sonmez, executive editor Marty Baron said: “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”
Perhaps reacting to the thousands of negative and often threating tweets and other social media comments, the paper placed Sonmez on administrative leave. Members of the paper’s Newspaper Guild protested the decision, saying that she should have been offered protection in light of the threats she received. The Washington Post isn’t the first mainstream news organization to cope with ethical complexities of social media, and it won’t be the last. The paper has made the right decision in reinstating Sonmez.
The day after the suspension, I posed the question to a class of 90 undergraduate students in my Media Ethics course at SMU in Dallas. A number of students spoke up. The consensus seemed to be that the reporter shouldn’t have sent out the tweet. There was clear sensitivity to the emotion of the moment when a beloved athlete with global standing was lost in a tragedy. And yet, there was clear sentiment that the suspension of the reporter was overreaction. I agree with the students on both counts. Any discussion of the sexual assault allegation would have been better handled with time and thoughtful consideration of the full picture of Bryant’s life. Unfortunately, the digital age doesn’t allow for that.
So much of what happens now is a digital moment. Social media and the immediacy of the Internet seem to dictate action and reaction with little thought. Good, solid reporting that is factual and sensitive gets overwhelmed in the news cycle. The mistakes and the controversies linger. There were factual mistakes made by mainstream media as well as social media. We’ve gotten accustomed to those mistakes since the world of Twitter became a prime news source. And the website TMZ announced quickly, before any family could be notified, that Kobe Bryant was dead. TMZ has never played by the norms of traditional media.
The Newspaper Guild statement protesting the suspension noted that it is the responsibility of journalists to publish the whole picture of individuals and institutions, including that of a negative nature. And that’s certainly true. Yet social media seems only to encourage and exacerbate overreaction. Negativity reigns in making the snap judgments. Threats, insults and harsh conclusions have become the standards in communication, especially in the aftermath of major news stories.
Mainstream news media, print and broadcast, have for some years encouraged reporters and editors to engage in social media. Social media is used to link to stories that can build audience and help alleviate the economic cataclysm that has struck most traditional news organizations, especially newspapers. That miscues and even disastrous communications occur when responsible journalists are encouraged to make snap communications over social media should be no surprise.
We have now had the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable news for more than a generation. The idea that news was never complete and got on the air immediately with little or no vetting became the standard. Not only did reporting and journalism change, our very perception of the news changed.
The same dramatic change is now taking place with social media and digital technology. The standards and ethics of the past no longer mean anything. News and reaction are even more instantaneous and less vetted than cable news. We interpret major news events through the brief sentences that often have truncated spellings, millennial-style initialisms and emojis, and horrible grammar. Whatever we may think of these changes, they are here to stay.