Contradictory reports on Kobe Bryant death jeopardize journalistic credibility

By Matthew Muir | Staff Writer

In the immediate aftermath of NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s death Sunday, media outlets nationwide scrambled to report the news as quickly as possible and totally embarrassed themselves in the process.

The facts we now know are that Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed when the helicopter they were flying in crashed near Calabasas, Calif. shortly before 10 a.m. PST.

TMZ broke the story at 11:24 a.m. and immediately bungled their report. Early versions of the story ran with a line saying Bryant was survived by his wife and four daughters. Further reports confirmed Gianna perished in the crash.

TMZ was later slammed by LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva for reporting on the crash before the families of the victims could be informed. TMZ founder Harvey Levin claimed “Kobe’s people” greenlit the story’s publication.

ABC News correspondent Matt Gutman royally screwed up when he stated on-air that all four of Bryant’s daughters were believed to have been on the helicopter. Gutman issued an apology during a later broadcast and has since been suspended by ABC News, but the false report spread like wildfire on social media.

Early reports were unclear regarding the number of crash victims, with most outlets reporting at least five. In a show of how these inaccuracies pervaded the national conversation, President Donald Trump tweeted “Bryant and three others” were killed. Jeffrey Guterman chastised the president’s inaccurate tweet, saying “[f]our, not three, others were killed in the crash. Can’t you get anything right?” The first official statement from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office confirmed there were nine people in the helicopter.

Mistakes made during the media kerfuffle weren’t limited to the crash itself; BBC News used footage of LeBron James when reporting on Bryant’s passing in what may be the most unbelievably careless of all of Sunday’s errors.

Twitter’s rumor mill churned out the particularly pervasive idea that NBA veteran Rick Fox was also aboard the downed helicopter, a report which had to be debunked by news sources. In an appearance this week on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” Fox spoke of the pain the rumors caused him and his family while already grieving the death of a friend.

Journalism is under much scrutiny in the United States. When accusations of “fake news” are already lobbed at legitimate and factual reporting, real cases of media malpractice only serve as vindication for the skeptics. While a cornerstone of modern journalism is timely reporting, accuracy is even more important; being the first to cover breaking news means nothing if the reporting isn’t factual.

These high-profile screw-ups make journalism as a whole look bad, and more importantly, affect real people. Bryant was a public figure beloved by many, and those fans’ grief was undoubtedly inflamed by the inaccurate and contradictory reports fed to them. Journalists and news outlets that practiced restraint and integrity deserve a pat on the back. Those that didn’t need to reflect on how their mistakes erode the trust the audience puts in them.

Matthew is a junior political science major from Robinson.