OPINION: Sometimes getting it first isn’t getting it right

Published 4:03 pm Monday, March 20, 2023

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In a day and age when reporters and reporting seems to be under attack daily, trust in reporters is more important than ever. Some members of the state – and national media – have possibly irreparably damaged that trust in the past two months.

There’s a lot of people in the 24/7 news/sports media world that take the “if your not first your last” mantra to heart and it can result in that trust being destroyed forever. Something that my personal mentor always told me has stuck with me for just that reason. “It’s not about getting it first, it’s about getting it right.” In our country, “fake news” is shouted at times at anything people don’t like that’s reported. So, when something incorrect is reported it just piles onto that narrative.

In January, a young Birmingham woman – Jamea Jonae Harris – lost her life when she was shot in the face during an incident that involved at least one Alabama basketball player. How much – and how many players – involvement from Alabama players is still not fully understood, but in the days and weeks following that event some in the local, state and national media began to paint a narrative about the incident.

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Many facts of the case are still not 100 percent clear, other than the fact that former Alabama basketball player Darius Miles – and his childhood friend Michael Davis – got into an altercation with a Birmingham man named Cedric Johnson that led to a shootout resulting in Harris’ death.

Early reports indicated that SEC Player of the Year Brandon Miller brought the gun that Davis used – and was owned by Miles – to fatally wound Harris. These reports were largely based around testimony from the lead investigator during the preliminary hearing in the case. Those reports also indicated that Davis threatened Johnson and potentially even “hunted” him down and that Davis shot first in the incident. The problem with this is that all of that testimony comes from the initial statement given by Johnson, and he alone.

I emphasize “initial statement” because Johnson has yet to give any other statements to investigators, nor has he testified to these claims. Why? Because Tuscaloosa Police have been unable to find him since the incident.

The problems with the reporting don’t stop there, either. Miller’s involvement stems from the fact that Miles was riding with Miller on the night of the incident and placed his firearm in a bag in Miller’s car earlier in the night. Reports following the incident indicated that Miles asked Miller to bring the gun to him and Miller obliged, even blocking the Jeep driven by Johnson in before the shooting.

Following these reports, many in the state and local media demanded that Miller be suspended from the team but Alabama coach Nate Oats emphatically refused, saying that Miller was not a suspect and committed no crimes. Tuscaloosa Police repeatedly said that Miller was not a suspect and would not be charged either.

Again, it seems as if some of the reporting around Miller’s involvement is simply untrue. It is a fact that Miles asked Miller to bring his gun but in subsequent statements by the police it’s also clear that Miller was already on the way to pick Miles up when the texts were sent and it’s unclear if he had even seen them before getting there. Local Tuscaloosa independent news outlet, Patch, released the most thorough and detailed look at the incident thus far and not only used testimony from the grand jury hearings but also was able to review security footage surrounding the incident.

According to Patch reporter Ryan Phillips, the reports of Miller “blocking in” the Jeep driven by Johnson are patently untrue as Miller arrived before Johnson and that Johnson pulled in behind Miller’s vehicle. Other aspects of the story that had been overlooked – or completely ignored – were the fact that another individual in Johnson’s car denied hearing any threats coming from Miles or Davis in the initial incident. Additionally, security footage showed Johnson circling the area in which Davis and Miles were occupied and at one point, even shutting the Jeep’s lights off at a stop sign as Miles walked in the opposite direction.

According to the Patch’s reporting, it’s still unclear exactly who shot first but the video of the incident reveals Davis falling back – as if he was struck – before then firing, or returning fire.

The question here is why was an independent media outlet the only one to dig this deep? State media spent the SEC Tournament asking coaches around the conference if they had a “gun policy” and asking Alabama players if there was a “gun culture” amongst the team. Those were the questions that were the most important to ask?

State and national media used social media to relentlessly push that Alabama’s SEC Championship – and subsequent NCAA Tournament run – was tarnished due to the incident. Countless columns were written with the same narrative. Much of this social media push has led to countless posts on social media indicating that Miller “murdered” someone or, at the very least, made a poor decision that led to someone’s death.

I’m not going to lie, when I read the first reports about the incident my belief was that at the very least he made some very poor decisions, but now as more and more facts are revealed it’s unclear if Miller did anything that can even be construed as “wrong” in this issue. None of this has stopped the insanity of death threats that have been levied at Miller – leading to him being followed by armed security at Legacy Arena in the first round of the NCAA Tournament – or 1000s of people on social media calling him a murderer and demanding his removal from the team, or even arrest.

Very few – if any – of these media outlets have so much as acknowledged the new reporting from the Patch, let alone seem to be reflecting on what snap judgments and the quest to “be first” may have led to. If Miles and Davis are acquitted in this case – for self-defense for example – will these same reporters and talking heads continue to simply ignore it?

The worst part of it all, though, is the fact that it seems like some very prominent members of the state media have used the death of a young woman for clicks and social media engagement. Regardless of anything else, one absolute truth through this entire saga is that a son lost his mother and parents lost their daughter over something that absolutely could have – and should have – been avoided. In three months, Brandon Miller will be a millionaire in the NBA and those in the media – state and national – will have moved on to something else to be outraged over. Jamea Harris will still be gone and her friends and family will still be grieving.