The story appeared in enough places to attract even non-football fans: Sean Taylor, a star for the Washington Redskins, was shot during a break-in at his home on Nov. 26, 2007. He died one day later.
A Nov. 27, 2007 ESPN.com story might have set a pattern for the coverage in other media outlets. It described the attack and quoted then-head coach Joe Gibbs and then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. It explained the shooting happened just one week after an earlier break-in at Taylor's home. And. it also included a brief rundown of Taylor's own problems with the law and with NFL rules in the four years he played for the Redskins.
That last part of the ESPN.com story prompted me to bring the Taylor coverage into the media ethics class I team-taught in the spring of 2008. We asked the students to read a November 30, 2007 poynteronline discussion about the coverage, held between Poynter's Roy Peter Clark and Rob King, editor-in-chief of ESPN.com. Students who didn't remember seeing the stories when they first ran were asked to read some of them before class.
Then we posed this question: If you were writing the Taylor stories, would you have used the information on his brushes with the law? If so, would you have included that information in the first-day story-or later?
All of the students agreed they would use the information on Taylor's legal problems and his violations of NFL rules. But they strongly disagreed on when that information would have gone into their stories.
One senior who had been active on our campus newspaper said he would have included the legal problems on day one. That, he argued, would help identify Taylor to readers. Another student agreed. She said she is not a football fan, but did remember Taylor's earlier problems and said a mention of those helped her identify him in the day-one stories.
Others, however, argued Taylor was more than just his "troubled past," as many stories phrased it. They said they would have restricted early coverage to the break-in and police investigation. To do otherwise, they said, was to lead readers and viewers to jump to conclusions about the kind of man Taylor was and why he was killed.
I asked "what impression did you get from the day-one coverage that included discussion of Taylor's past legal problems and violations of NFL rules?" Several students said it suggested a familiar story line-talented, well-known athlete can't shake troubled past and is led to disaster
But that familiar story line didn't accurately tell this story, the students agreed. Later stories explained Taylor had changed, particularly after the birth of a daughter 18 months earlier. For some of my students, telling a back story that included only the records of arrests and NFL violations was, in effect, not telling readers an accurate story. They felt a fully accurate story needed the comments from his teammates and coaches, comments that were first seen in follow-up stories a day or two after the shooting. Those, they said, allowed readers who had not already made up their minds based on the earliest stories to discover that the familiar story line wasn't true.
The Taylor coverage offered another example of a problem I'd heard discussed in September 2007 at a conference at Duke University Law School. The conference focused on media coverage of the arrest of three Duke lacrosse players on rape charges. Some of the Duke panelists said reporters following the Duke arrests thought they'd found the familiar story line-spoiled athletes assuming they could do as they pleased. The reporters gathered information with that story line in mind and wrote their stories. But in the process, speakers at the conference said, many reporters missed warnings that the facts did not support that story line.
In both the Duke and the Taylor cases, reporters had official information available-arrest records, prosecutor statements and, for Taylor, NFL records. In both cases, the earliest stories used that official information without looking further. Time was a major part of the reason-in a world where deadlines have shrunk from hours to minutes ("we can get it on the Web site now!"), stories get filed with what little information the reporters then have. Reporters wanting to wait for more complete information may run into editors who want something filed for the next headline update or the Web page.
With just a little more time, my students noted, coverage in the Taylor case shifted tone. Day two stories included comments from teammates who told reporters of a friend, a proud father, a man who rarely spoke to reporters but who could be a delight one-on-one with his friends. One of Taylor's coaches described him in an early December ESPN.com story as an "extremely well-mannered, clean-cut kid." In that story, Coach Ralph Ortega acknowledged that there might be another side to Taylor, but said he'd like to hear about that from someone who actually knew Taylor, not someone simply building on rumors and old reports.
Duke stories were more problematic, since they built on comments from a prosecutor. He seemed to be a reliable source, although he was later disbarred for his conduct in this case. Even there, reporters willing to look beyond the familiar story line could have found records that cast doubt on the truth of the accusations against the lacrosse players.
But it was easy for the reporters covering both stories to believe they were cases that fit an old pattern of talented athletes getting a "pass" on bad behavior. Reporters covering Taylor's death even had a very recent example that seemed to fit. Earlier that year, Michael Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback, pleaded guilty to charges that he was central to running a dog fighting ring. Stories suggested the problems stemmed partly from old friends who were taking advantage of his fame and wealth to lead him in bad directions. Stories on Taylor's death suggested either that he also had been brought down by bad old friends or that he was trying to get away from those bad old friends and they fought back, with fatal results. Add in official "verification"-a prosecutor's statements, NFL records-and you have a hard conclusion to resist.
But in the end, neither of those stories really fit the "talented athletes behaving badly" stereotype. Taylor's attackers appear to be five men who shot him while trying to burglarize his house. At this writing, one defendant in the case has already pleaded guilty. A judge has set the trial date for the others for March 3, 2009.
In the Duke case, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper took over from the local district attorney and re-investigated. During a press conference in April 2007, Cooper announced that no rape had actually happened and took the extremely rare step of declaring the Duke players "innocent." A dismissal of charges document available through findlaw.com says the defendants are "innocent of the charges...and in the interest of justice these charges are dismissed."
Notice, though, that discovering the truth of both stories took time, an increasingly scarce commodity for reporters. When I was on the desk at a local newspaper, I might have many hours before my afternoon newspaper was ready to go to press. When my students go out to media jobs, they will likely be dealing with organizations whose Web sites can take stories as soon as the reporters can get them written.
For the students who would have waited, we offered this warning: You will have to defend the decision to wait. Your editor will see the coverage in other media that includes Taylor's criminal record and NFL violations and the Duke prosecutor's pronouncements and he or she will wonder, "why don't we have that?" The classmates who wanted that information in day-one stories might be the editors they're dealing with in their future jobs. Those who wanted to wait can find a defense for their decision-many did, that day in class-but they need to think it out before they're presented with the question.
I often tell the ethics students that I only choose the tough examples for class. Both the Taylor and the Duke stories are tough ethics examples. Different journalists can defend different "right" approaches to the stories. Some very good journalists made mistakes in covering both stories, and some of them took too long to correct those mistakes.
But while I couldn't offer my students one "right" approach, I did suggest one approach that I think is wrong-assuming that an incident fits into an easy-to-define story line, then viewing all the information in light of that story line. From such an approach, premature conclusions are drawn and errors are made. The Internet allows those errors to be spread quickly and far beyond the reach of a later correction.
I hope the students on both sides walked away with one lesson: Media coverage can go very wrong if we settle on a story line before we find or determine the facts.