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Kobe Bryant’s Past: A Tweet Too Soon?

WHAT: On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant, a former professional basketball player, died at the age of 41 in a helicopter crash in the Los Angeles area along with nine other people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. They were on their way from Orange County to Thousand Oaks to participate in a tournament basketball game at Mamba Sports Academy.

Bryant joined the National Basketball Association straight out of high school and won five NBA titles in his career playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. He became one of basketball’s greatest players of all time, surpassing Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA all-time scoring list in 2014. Bryant retired in 2016 and went on to earn an Academy Award in 2018 for Best Animated Short Film.

In July 2003, Bryant was charged with a count of sexual assault involving a 19-year-old woman working at a hotel in Edwards, Colorado. Bryant conceded he was guilty of adultery but said he was innocent of the rape charge. The criminal case was dismissed in 2004, and in 2005 he reached a settlement in a civil suit filed by his accuser.

While the majority of social media praised Bryant after his death, within a few hours after the story broke, Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for The Washington Post, tweeted a link to an article from 2003 about the allegations of sexual assault against Bryant. Sonmez did not add any personal commentary to the tweet, but her post received a lot of backlash, including threats.

Sonmez said she expected to have a large negative response. “I can understand that it would be difficult for people to read that,” she said, “but it’s also difficult, I imagine, for all of the [sexual assault] survivors in the country to see these allegations essentially be erased, which is how I felt in those couple of hours in the newsroom.” Sonmez deleted the tweet later the same day.

Tweets from the public in response said Sonmez’s actions were “insensitive,” “cold hearted,” “heartless” and “show no respect for [Bryant’s] family/friends.”

The next day, a Monday, Tracy Grant, a managing editor at The Washington Post, announced that Sonmez had been placed on administrative leave while the Post reviewed whether her tweets about Bryant’s death violated the newsroom’s social media policy. "The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues," Grant said. Afterward, though, The Washington Post issued a statement in support of Sonmez.

Question: Is there a limit to truth-telling? How long (if at all) should a journalist wait after a person’s death before resurfacing sensitive information about their past?

WHO: The decision-makers in this case are Felicia Sonmez and management at The Washington Post, who have to weigh the possibility that more harm will be caused to the family, friends and fans of Kobe Bryant against the urge to tell the entire story immediately, the constant pressure to increase circulation and to get the full story first, as well as thinking about the organization’s reputation. Additionally, there is pressure from the public who may feel deep sadness for the sudden loss, or from survivors who may see the allegations being “erased.”

The stakeholders include Kobe Bryant, whose legacy is being negatively impacted, as well as his family, friends and fans who have just experienced a very sudden and traumatic event. Although Bryant is no longer present to witness the tweets, one incident in his past is defining who he was as a person moments after his death. Felicia Sonmez leaves little time for those who loved Bryant to mourn his death and the death of the others that were involved in the crash.

Other stakeholders include Felicia Sonmez and The Washington Post, whose reputations are on the line.

WHY: Does a journalist’s dedication to seeking and telling the truth outweigh the possibility of causing more harm to the family, friends and fans of the deceased? Although it is the job of a reporter to tell engaging and credible stories, is there a point at which it is more appropriate for a reporter to back off and leave the story alone in order to give proper privacy, respect and time to those involved?

Minimizing harm entails showing sensitivity when dealing with children, victims of crime or people who are especially vulnerable due to trauma, injury, illness or other factors. Integrity implies providing anyone accused of misbehavior a reasonable opportunity to respond. In this case, Bryant had no way of responding to the resurfacing of accusations from his past misbehavior.

Telling the truth offers readers, viewers and listeners a complete picture of the subject involved, which helps gain a fuller understanding of who that person was. Timeliness is important as well. The timing of Sonmez’s tweets was harmful to many people. But while the timing of the tweets is debatable, the case is a relevant detail in Bryant’s life.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says that “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” This is where this case becomes a double-edged sword; on one hand, respect must be paid toward Bryant and his family, friends and fans; on the other hand, respect must be paid toward survivors of sexual assault. However, SPJ also believes that journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. The pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

If we apply the ethical theory that seeks to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number,” we can conclude that Sonmez should not have tweeted the link that day.

HOW: Is there a limit to truth-telling? How long (if at all) should a journalist wait after a person’s death before resurfacing sensitive information about their past? Although there should not be a limit to telling the truth, respect and timeliness need to be considered when doing so. If Sonmez had tweeted the link a few days after Bryant’s death, there probably would not have been as much backlash.

— by Lauren Zurcher, University of Denver

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