Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

Posted on Oct. 15, 2003                                                                                        Printer-friendly version

Does Kobe Bryant deserve the front page?

Commentary by John McManus

Just short of midnight on June 30, a man from Los Angeles and a woman from a small Colorado town had a brief sexual encounter at a secluded lodge in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. She called it rape. He called it consensual.

Last Friday their dispute landed 1,000 miles away on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News.

There are more than 200,000 charges of men raping women in a given year in the United States. Why was this one so important that it displaced news in the same reporting cycle about an Iraqi suicide bomber killing 10, a possible admissions scandal at the University of California, a windfall of $450 million in unexpected state tax revenue or alternate stories other Bay Area newspapers chose for their front pages?

The answer, I submit, hinges on whether the Mercury was following an economic model of news selection or a socially responsible journalistic one.

From a strictly business point of view, the Mercury was right to report on its front page the graphic details of NBA star Kobe Bryant’s preliminary hearing in which he was accused of raping a 19-year-old former cheerleader.

But if the purpose of journalism is to help residents of the Bay Area make sense of those current issues and events that most affect our lives, it’s difficult to see why a one-sided account of such a distant event — involving no one from our region — would merit such prominent play.

Using the front page to magnify attention on a rape hearing in which defense attorneys are already smearing the reputation of the young accuser may also cause civic harm — making victims of sexual assault less likely to seek justice for fear of a massively publicized invasion of the most intimate parts of their lives.

When Mr. Bryant’s attorney violated court rules to name the alleged victim not once, but six times, during the hearing, she was deputizing the 300 journalists present to dig up and publish whatever salacious information they could find. She was literally convening an early trial in the press with neither procedural protections nor defense for the young accuser.

All the news that’s fit to sell?

No law requires editors to act out of any higher motive than generating the greatest return possible for shareholders. From a short-term economic perspective, it’s hard to imagine a story better suited for selling.

Even if you don’t follow professional basketball, you are likely to have seen and heard Kobe Bryant. Handsome, smart and enormously gifted athletically, Mr. Bryant’s celebrity extends well beyond the court. In addition to his $20 million-plus basketball salary, he earns more than $10 million annually hawking Nike sneakers and McDonald’s restaurants.

Mr. Bryant is the brightest star in the post-Michael Jordan National Basketball League.
If “names make news” as editors say, there are few bigger names with which to excite readers’ interest.

That Mr. Bryant, with his reputation as a gentleman, should be accused of the violent rape of a lodge clerk is almost as jarring as the accusation a decade ago that O.J. Simpson, cheered by little blue-haired ladies as he bounded through airports for Hertz, had slashed the throats of his pretty blonde wife and her friend. The story rates high in unusualness, another prominent component of newsworthiness.

Then there’s prurience. The Mercury’s account left little to the imagination, even describing blood stains in the young woman’s underwear. And adultery. Mr. Bryant married only two years ago and became a father in January. And the taboo of a black man having sex with a white woman. The accuser has been described as tall and blonde. Mr. Bryant, of course, is African American.

From the perspective of selling newspapers, it’s a, well, slam dunk.

Defining the newsworthiness of violence

In 1996 an Austin, Texas, television station established a set of widely discussed rules about covering violence. It ought to be covered, the news director decided, based on the number of positive answers to five questions:

• Does action need to be taken by local viewers?
• Is there an immediate threat to safety?
• Is there a threat to children?
• Does the crime have significant community impact?
• Does the story lend itself to a crime-prevention effort?

Could any Bay Area journalist logically answer yes to even one of these criteria?

“I think the five points are very intelligent,” said San Francisco Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal. “We ask something like them here.”

The Chronicle chose not to run the story on the front page, but on A3, with a photo of Mr. Bryant on the front page. Other stories were more important, Mr. Rosenthal said. “We have a very vivid sex trial where one person is saying one thing and the other is saying the opposite,” he explained. “Looking at the mix that day, the decision was whether it would have gone [below the fold on the front page] or whether the suicide bombing was more important.”

David Satterfield, managing editor of the Mercury, defended his paper’s page-one placement principally on the grounds that many readers would be interested.

“By putting it on the front page,” Mr. Satterfield said, “our intent is to inform but also to be interesting. This was an interesting story. The graphic detail of the alleged crime was pretty horrific. When you have a celebrity paid millions of dollars to do his job and is arguably a role model for kids and then you see this, it’s a pretty important story.”

There are two claims here. Satisfying public curiosity and exposing the clay feet of a role model for young people.

No code of journalism ethics holds that the journalist’s first obligation is satisfying public curiosity. People are curious about many things, especially the sex lives of attractive celebrities. But that doesn’t make them news, much less front page news.

Exposing a role model as a fraud aspires to importance. Bay Area kids may be admiring a thug. Mr. Bryant has already admitted adultery and was charged with rape in July. Friday’s story may foreclose a few more sales of Lakers’ jerseys bearing his familiar number 8, but considerable gilding was already off this lily.

Economic rationale

Of course, newspapers are businesses and cannot afford to ignore topics people will bring to the water cooler. Asking news media to ignore a story of wide interest, no matter how inconsequential for local residents, would set the moral bar very high. But some compromise between market demands and ethical behavior is possible.

Editors might have run the story, but inside the paper. They might have treated it as a brief until the trial offered a more balanced view of what happened on that June night. They might even have decided to wait until the verdict to avoid speculative trashing of the reputations of both Mr. Bryant and his accuser.

Some papers exercised these options. On Friday, The New York Times ran the story on page C13, inside the sports section. The Wall Street Journal ignored it. The Los Angeles Times, hometown of the Lakers, played it on the front page as did The Washington Post and Dallas Morning News. The Oakland Tribune ran it on page A8.

The difference between a front-page and inside placement may seem trivial. But readership drops significantly beyond A1. It’s all many harried two-earner Silicon Valley families routinely see.

The front page is also a bully pulpit. It’s where editors have the opportunity to push forward what’s significant. Many readers rely on it as a gauge of what’s important.

Michael Antonucci, a South Bay journalist who serves on the Grade the News journalist advisory board, offered another defense of the Mercury’s decision: “That’s a slam dunk page one [story] because of the issues it raised about rape shields and attorney tactics.”

To be sure, there are important issues related to the Bryant case. But none of these were explored in Friday’s story. It was consumed with descriptions of each side presenting damning evidence about the other without rebuttal. That’s the nature of a preliminary hearing. It’s a libel-proof venue in which reputations can be harmed by charges that never arise in trial.

The broader question

American courts have generally ruled that courtroom proceedings must be open to public scrutiny as a safeguard against injustice.

But that access can obstruct justice when the press is irresponsible.

The Mercury, like many other reputable papers, declines to identify alleged victims of sex crimes. Their laudable goal is to avoid stigmatizing someone, usually a woman, who may have already been through enormous trauma.

The Mercury didn’t identify Mr. Bryant’s accuser, even after his attorney named her so often the judge threatened to muzzle her. But by boosting the story with front page treatment, the Mercury fanned public curiosity. With two mouse clicks, readers can find the young woman’s name and lurid tales about her sexual history freshly reported by less scrupulous media.

Women’s advocates have long complained that the tactic of putting a sexual victim’s reputation on trial scares many victims from seeking justice. When the media expand the courtroom gallery from dozens to millions, as they do predictably when celebrities are involved, the intimidation increases exponentially.

Mercury Editor Satterfield acknowledged the risk: “Yeah, there is that danger. You do get some reluctance from people to come forward.”

But at a paper as good and community-spirited as the Mercury, the issue deserves more consideration.

It’s not just the community’s information needs that are ignored when sensational news displaces substantive stories. It’s sensitivity to a whole class of very real victims.

What do you think?

 

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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