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December 3, 2007

The Media and the Death of Sean Taylor


A 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 the shooting.


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 NFL player.


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 rap sheet.


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 dishonest.


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 Pasquarelli's 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.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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