Reports of a fight over little Zoey’s paternity have been denied. Liam Day deconstructs them for the journalistic problems they expose.
“Some news stories seem to think the reason this happened might be related to his concern about paternity fraud – i.e. was she cheating on him, or perhaps worse had she attempted to pass someone else’s baby off as his? That would not EXCUSE it, but it might EXPLAIN it.”
This was a comment left on a post we ran over the weekend, in our continued response to the murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins, by a public health professional who offered ways to reframe conversations about dating violence if you know or suspect someone is committing it, but are uncomfortable about involving yourself. The commenter referred to the post as agitprop.
Now, I am not here to argue whether the revelation, which has since been denied, that Belcher and Perkins fought over the paternity of their three-month old child should change our perspective on the events that unfolded in Kansas City more than two weeks ago.
What I am here to argue is that, as this story has unfolded, what has been revealed, as much as any facts in the case, are the problems that beset journalism in an era of instant and constant information, including the reliance, often overreliance, of reporters on anonymous sources, and the bias in readers’ minds that this type of reporting, or misreporting as may be the case, can engender.
The source of the initial report by the New York Post was an unnamed person close to the Kansas City Chiefs’ organization, a report which was then confirmed by an unnamed law enforcement source. Both reports said the same thing, that Jovan Belcher’s mother told police she overheard her son and his girlfriend fighting about whether he was, in fact, the father of the couple’s daughter.
Now two sources should be enough to run a story of this kind, but like an onion, the report of the mother’s statement to police, though corroborated, contained multiple layers of truth that needed to be peeled back. The first, and most obvious layer, was whether the information itself was true. At this level I do not blame the reporter for running with the information she was given. She had two sources and one would hope she could be assured police would not corroborate, at least not intentionally, misinformation in a case in which the department’s reputation is not at stake.
At the next level, though, there was the question of whether the mother was telling the truth. Remember, the mother has since come out and said she never told police the couple had been fighting over the question of paternity. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume she hasn’t and stands by what she reportedly told the police. Should the reporter have taken that at face value?
Of course not. Jovan Belcher’s mother is hardly a disinterested bystander. A reporter could reasonably attribute motive to her for saying what she supposedly said to the cops, namely the desire to protect her son’s reputation by imputing to Kasandra Perkins behavior that would make what her son did easier to understand. This motive and, as a result, the true or false nature of the statement should have been more fully investigated.
Finally, even if it turned out that what the police department source said was true and what it was inaccurately reported Jovan Belcher’s mother said was true, there remained the question of whether the accusation itself would have been true. And even here the question is two-pronged, because it would not merely have been a matter of whether Jovan Belcher was little Zoey’s father. It would also have been a matter, as it regards readers’ bias against Kasandra Perkins, of whether there were even grounds for Belcher’s suspicion that he might not be the father.
For it would not have been out of the realm of possibility that, even if the previous suppositions had been true, that the suspicion resided entirely in Jovan Belcher’s head. He was clearly not in a right frame of mind on Saturday, December 1, 2012, when he argued with and then shot Kasandra Perkins. As a reporter, how could one be sure that Belcher wasn’t delusional that morning and, as such, misinterpreting behavior on the part of Perkins that might appear completely innocent from a different perspective?
To automatically assume reasonable grounds for Belcher’s suspicion is to flirt dangerously with a traditional narrative that places the blame on the victim—of course she must have done something to set him off—and by running with the story, without peeling back all of the layers the original source’s single statement contained, reporters have done the equivalent of asking Kasandra Perkins if she still beats her wife.
Photo: Tony Gutierrez, AP