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Media coverage of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash included missteps, insights and tears

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Fans gather on Sunday at Staples Center.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Jim Hill rushed into the KCBS-Channel 2 studio in suit and tie and had Magic Johnson on the phone while other local TV crews were scrambling to do fan-on-the-street reactions. That was impressive but not unexpected.

Liz Habib’s voice cracked before she had to stop and wipe away tears, abandoning a KTTV-Channel 11 live standup. That felt appropriate.

ESPN and ABC continued to televise the NFL’s Pro Bowl in a simulcast, a meaningless exercise, while pushing its live coverage of events to ESPN2. That was beyond awkward, bordering on disrespectful.

Media outlets trying to disseminate what TMZ first reported Sunday morning as a helicopter crash in Calabasas that took five lives, including that of retired Lakers star Kobe Bryant, ignited the comprehension, disbelief and misinformation anxiety that often permeate the first 24 hours of a news cycle.

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A police and fire news conference confirmed that a total of nine had died in the helicopter crash, but officials would not give out names. It was not appropriate until the families of the victims could be notified. Some media outlets continued to report inaccurate information — including some that were told former Laker Rick Fox was on board.

Soon, an ESPN-posted story by Adrian Wojnarowski, based on his NBA contacts, first included reports that Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was aboard, along with another player and parent. But how could that be verified?

Again, with L.A.-based TMZ first with this global-impact story, there remains a push by more traditional media to verify, verify, verify. It is much better to be second and correct with information rather than first and embarrassingly wrong, especially when the topic involves death.

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L.A. mourns the death of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.

Which made reaction to the reports early in the news cycle all the more surreal. Not until a photograph circulated on social media of people kneeling in prayer at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks did the story truly become real.

Fast-moving stories like this can expose the strengths and weaknesses of newsgathering organizations. But amid the whirlwind, viewers can figure out which outlet may best serve their needs.

A CNN crew that included the quick perspective of columnists such as USA Today’s Christine Brennan, and later context provided by TNT’s Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith, along with former NBC NBA and Olympic journalist Bob Costas and several on-the-scene reporters in Calabasas, carries huge weight for those who value fact-gathering and tempered responses.

With Matt Winer on NBATV along with former Lakers coach and Bryant teammate Brian Shaw next to him, cutting in and out of NBA games as they paid tribute to Bryant, it answered the question of whether games would be canceled, or would be played in his honor.

The Spectrum SportsNet crew of Chris McGee, James Worthy and Robert Horry brought Laker Nation together for comfort and reflection.

Until ESPN could calibrate how it wanted to collect itself and cover the story amid its family of platforms doing various live-event coverage, it used ESPN2 as its breaking-news outlet. ESPNEWS would have been a more logical choice, but wasn’t used.

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CBS broadcast the final round of the PGA Farmers Insurance Open and NBC had U.S. figure skating finals, but local affiliates were breaking in with news of the crash.

Whatever NFL contracts ABC/ESPN had to honor in this situation, the broadcasters came off as rather tone deaf as the company was trying to initiate its plan. It finally gave full coverage to Bristol, Conn.-based studio hosts Zubin Mehenti and Michael Eaves. An on-air interview with staff analyst and former NBA player Jay Williams showed the depth of its ability to help shape the narrative with real language.

It had Eaves, the onetime Fox Sports News reporter, bring a personal touch based on his professional relationship with Bryant. As Eaves would eventually admit in a series of tweets: “Covering the death of #Kobe today was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my 25+ years of broadcasting. I hated doing it but I was so glad I was there to be able to do it after having spent 10 years in LA watching him build his #NBA legacy from my courtside seat. It was such a gut punch to those who knew him, covered him and cheered for him.”

Kobe Bryant, the NBA MVP who had a 20-year career with the Lakers, was killed Sunday when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed and burst into flames in the hills above Calabasas. His daughter Gianna, 13, was also on board and died along with seven others.

For so many L.A. viewers, Jim Hill became the go-to voice.

When Hill was able to give airtime to Johnson at midday Sunday, and for Johnson to admit that in a just world, it should be Bryant eulogizing him in a public setting instead of the other way around, was a chilling, bitter burst of reality for anyone who lived 25-plus years ago with the Johnson HIV announcement. Hill later had former Lakers great and team GM Jerry West, who orchestrated Bryant’s arrival in L.A. through the NBA draft and trade, and Lakers fan Jack Nicholson on the line for reaction.

Circling back to how Habib reacted — it came after a KTTV split screen showing aerial coverage of the Calabasas hillside with smoldering wreckage on one side and tape of an interview Habib did with Bryant recently that included a discussion about his daughters.

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Habib tried to add more to that clip, but began to cry. She handed the microphone to Pablo Alsina, and the camera focused on him for several minutes to fill airtime. That was a human reaction on a day it was needed.


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