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December 3, 2007
The Media and the
Death of Sean Taylor
great athlete is dead, a city is in mourning (or rather, two cities),
and as with any event, the media coverage – newspapers, on TV and online
– is upsetting lots of people.
Sean Taylor, the All-Pro safety for the Washington Redskins who was in
just the fourth season of his career, was gunned down last Monday at his
home in Miami and died the following morning of injuries stemming from
Just 24 years old, Taylor left behind a fiancée and one-year-old
daughter, as well as his professional and college cities (Washington and
Miami) where he had been beloved.
ESPN, at first, was criticized for giving very little coverage to the
death in the first few hours after it was announced, with Monday
morning's SportsCenter highlights show giving more play to the previous
night's "Monday Night Football" game than to the death of a significant
But another, more unfortunate media tendency emerged in the few days
after that: Nearly every news account of Taylor's death brought up
several prior instances of run-ins the star had had with the law, most
specifically a drunk-driving conviction early in his career, several
fines/suspensions by the NFL and an incident in 2005 in which Taylor had
been accused of brandishing a gun at a group of men who had allegedly
stolen all-terrain vehicles from him. Despite facing jail time, Taylor
was ultimately acquitted of those charges.
Some, but not all, television and print accounts of Taylor's death
pointed out that the player had been profoundly affected by the birth of
his first child, a daughter, about a year ago and had very much gotten
his life in order. And of course, Taylor was not killed in the midst of
a nightclub altercation or as part of any type of street beef – he was
shot while defending his family from an invasion of his home. And after
four men were arrested and charged in connection with murder, it
appeared at week’s end that the killing was an unpremeditated home
invasion gone wrong.
The early coverage was, rightly I think, slammed by the National
Association of Black Journalists, the leader of which called on
journalists to not “speak or write on things you don't know.” Also
coming in for criticism? Washington Post columnists Leonard
Shapiro, who is white, who called Taylor’s death “not surprising” and
Michael Wilbon, who is black, who wrote that Taylor should have done
more to get away from unsavory associates.
What's the right thing? Clearly, in dealing with the recently deceased,
news organizations must strike a balance between respecting the dead and
reporting the facts of the story. And yes, it was wrong when some media
outlets, including ESPN, eulogized Taylor by essentially reciting his
However, to say that not a single negative story from the past should
ever be recounted about a public figure who just passed away ignores the
way journalism works. While the feelings of the departed's friends,
relatives and fans should be taken into account, whether the subject of
a story is living or dead, the facts are the facts and they should not
be omitted. Taylor spent a year out of his less than four-year career
fighting the weapons charge. To leave that out of his obituary would be
By the end of the week, the controversy had gone in even stranger
directions. Both football writer
Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com and
blogger Jason La Confora of the Washington Post's Redskins
Insider blog were pilloried for, on the day after Taylor's death,
writing about, respectively, the Redskins's plans to move forward and
replace Taylor on the field, and the salary cap and payroll implications
of Taylor's death.
Sure, it may have been wise to delay the consideration of these
questions another day or two. But the fact was that
article was one of about 10 about Taylor on ESPN's site that day, while
La Confora's was one of numerous blog posts that day about Taylor. And
both questions, far from the most important to consider that day, were
indeed things that were on the minds of some fans, and both reporters –
while disclaiming that they felt uneasy about writing about such things
so soon – acknowledged that they had gotten lots of questions.
In a situation like Taylor’s death, as in so many others, journalists
find themselves with no good options. The best thing for them to do is
to get at the story while emphasizing the relevant facts and avoiding
sensationalism and unfair speculation.
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