Concern Over Sean Taylor Coverage
Monday, November 26, 2007
Black Sportswriters Fear Stereotypical Narrative
The shooting death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor has left some African American sportswriters concerned that coverage by their predominantly white colleagues will unfairly emphasize negative aspects of Taylor's past.
"The one thing that I have found today from listening to talk radio and reading columnists/bloggers views on this matter is this," the Boston Globe's Gregory Lee, who chairs the Sports Task Force of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote to his colleagues on Tuesday:
"Don't speak or write on things you don't know. What I mean by that is often times when sports turns into social issues, most don't get it and don't have the background to speak about it. The only thing they can go off is stereotypical images of rap videos or watching New Jack City."
Taylor, 24, died Tuesday after he was shot in his home by an apparent intruder, "leaving the Washington Redskins in mourning for a teammate who seemed to have reordered his life since becoming a father," the Associated Press reported.
The AP story continued, "An All-American at the University of Miami, Taylor was drafted by the Redskins as the fifth overall selection in 2004. Coach Joe Gibbs called it 'one of the most researched things' he'd ever done, but the problems soon began. Taylor fired his agent, then skipped part of the NFL's mandatory rookie symposium, drawing a $25,000 fine. Driving home late from a party during the season, he was pulled over and charged with drunken driving. The case was dismissed in court, but by then it had become a months-long distraction for the team.
"Taylor also was fined at least seven times for late hits, uniform violations and other infractions over his first three seasons, including a $17,000 penalty for spitting in the face of Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman during a playoff game in January 2006.
"Meanwhile, Taylor endured a yearlong legal battle after he was accused in 2005 of brandishing a gun at a man during a fight over allegedly stolen all-terrain vehicles near Taylor's home. He eventually pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to 18 months' probation.
"Taylor said the end of the assault case was like 'a gray cloud' being lifted. It was also around the time that Jackie was born, and teammates noticed a change."
Those paragraphs, and others like it, did not sit well with members of the NABJ Sports Task Force. "There's a problem I've been having with reporting on Sean Taylor and I'm leaning to being annoyed on a moral level more than anything else," Zuri Berry, sports reporter at the Union in Grass Valley, Calif., wrote.
"The story AP has sent out is only as long as it is because it provides a laundry list of transgressions Taylor had that I simply feel are not important for this particularly tragic event. I mean, there's obviously a list out on everybody that's done anything wrong, waiting to be attached to the person's next scandalous story. Well there's no scandal here, just tragedy. And I feel that Taylor's memory right now is being done a disservice for rehashing that 'Taylor also was fined at least seven times for late hits, uniform violations and other infractions over his first three seasons, including a $17,000 penalty for spitting in the face of Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman during a 2006 playoff game.'
"Excuse me if I wonder out loud, what the hell does this have to do with him being shot. Mind you, this isn't an obit, this is breaking news."
Justice B. Hill, senior writer with MLB.com, compared the coverage with that of Ronald Reagan. "Last night, I read Leonard Pitts' column on Ronald Reagan. Pitts wrote the piece in April 2004, and he called out journalists for painting this overly flattering a picture of Reagan on his death," Hill said.
"In concluding his column, Pitts wrote: 'The media have sold us a fraudulent version of history. Everybody loved Ronald Reagan, it says.
"'Beg pardon, but "everybody" did not.'
"I would have no problem with the coverage of Sean Taylor if, in fact, what the media did to Taylor was consistent with how they deal with others in his circumstance. To suggest that black men like Taylor aren't dealt with unfairly in the media is to embrace the idea of mermaids as real or that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction."
Another writer singled out Leonard Shapiro of the Washington Post, who wrote a piece on the Post Web site headlined, "Taylor's Death Is Tragic but Not Surprising."
"Certainly it would be terribly easy to rush toward some sort of instant judgment based on what we think we all knew about Taylor and the sort of life he once, and for all we know, still led," Shapiro wrote. "But really, we know nothing at the moment, and until we do, 'may he rest in peace' ought to be the operative phrase for this day."
However, the next sentence was, "Still, could anyone honestly say they never saw this coming?"
Wrote Jemele Hill of ESPN.com: "Before Taylor died, I intended to write a column about how the tenor of reporting seemed to be, well what do you expect? Look at all the trouble he got into.
"It's not like Taylor was out at the club, or at the wrong place, wrong time. If the police thought his past troubles were related to his murder, then I understand it. But it seems as if this is being framed as, he got what was coming to him, when he'd been trouble-free for some time. Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but I just have a hard time believing that if Brett Favre got shot, there would be grafs about his personal drug abuse issues."
Hill wrote her own column, noting, "Studies conducted in 2006 at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions concluded a black man is more than six times as likely to be murdered than a white man.
"This isn't to say Taylor was killed because he was black," Hill wrote. "This is to say that, because he was black, Taylor was more likely to be killed. The weight of that should be just as jarring as waking up and discovering an NFL player died from a gunshot wound. Please don't roll your eyes, release a frustrated breath, and trivialize this as 'playing the race card.'"
Not everyone agreed that Taylor's legal issues should not have been mentioned.
"I don't think anyone can really escape their past," another said. "I didn't see the relevancy of the AP story talking about his fines and some on-field run-ins, but I didn't have a problem with the mention of his legal issues. no telling what this police investigation will turn up, it doesn't sound like a random break-in to me. maybe I'm just too cynical but when I first heard Taylor got shot at his home, I wasn't thinking about his present turnaround. I was thinking of his past troubles."
Asked for comment, Mike Silverman, senior managing editor at the Associated Press, said of Monday night's story:
"I went back and read through yesterday's story . . . I think it's pretty well balanced. The material on his problems appear in the context of his turning himself around after the birth of his daughter and a very sympathetic quote from teammate Clinton Portis."
He referred Journal-isms to AP's latest version of the story and pointed out that it now also had a sidebar about the medical aspects of the case.
Harris said the newer version did not address his concerns, "simply because it reworks the lead to address the general public's concern, as well as his family and friends, over his negative portrayal. But the grafs I cited in my initial post . . . are still included, however irrelevant and damaging.
"But yes, compared to yesterday's story on the shooting, it is much better in its reporting on the incident rather than Taylor's previous transgressions. Or I should say, more properly balanced."
Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.
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