It’s been hard to turn on almost any media outlet available in Florida lately without hearing about the Florida State University football team – and the stories aren’t about the team’s remaining schedule.
Experts say that media coverage of the allegations against Jameis Winston may be influencing the story, not just chronicling it.
“You would like to think that the media would treat a star quarterback the same way it would treat anybody else who falls into an investigation like this, says Lester Munson, an ESPN legal analyst who also teaches classes at Northwestern University on the intersection between sports, the law and journalism. "That would be the ideal situation. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.”
Munson says he doesn’t fault the media for using public records requests to bring to light a nearly year-old case.
“There must be media scrutiny of any investigation, any prosecution. We do not need to have police and prosecutors working without the public spotlight on them, especially in a case with this level of notoriety,” he says.
But FSU communications professor Arthur Raney says it’s also important to note what outlet is disseminating the information, because that may set a tone for how the rest of the story unfolds.
“When TMZ, the gossip-related website and outlet is the one breaking this story, right, it does call into question the credibility, immediately, in some people’s eyes," Raney says. "Absolutely, then, the way that the story gets initially framed by the outlet who breaks it has an impact on the way then people perceive it.”
The tone of the Winston story has exhibited notes of the tabloid style TMZ is known for. Information has broken by way of leaks from law enforcement officials to ESPN and the 24-hour news cycle has been consumed with the “he said-she said” that’s ensued between the lawyers on both sides of the case – both of whom insist they wanted to keep the investigation out of the public eye. Raney says that tone has since pervaded the news space – and sometimes to journalism’s detriment.
“I saw a poll the other day on a media’s website that was basically ‘Is Jameis Winston guilty? Is he innocent?’ Well, it really doesn’t matter what you and I think – there’s a legal process here. And the fact that people’s opinions at this point becomes the story itself can be quite problematic.”
But Munson says the media’s tone might actually make the investigation move more quickly. Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs has said he’ll rule “soon” on whether to file charges against Winston, but what “soon” means is anyone’s guess. No matter when it happens, Munson says the process often seems to move more quickly in Florida because of the state’s sunshine laws allowing journalists easier access to public records.
“They know that they can keep no secrets and therefore they work at a higher level than you see when you look at prosecutors in other states,” Munson says.
But Munson says if Meggs delays too long, the media could begin to focus more on him and not on the Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback whose fate hangs in the balance.
“If he postpones his decision and allows Winston to play out the season and even a bowl game, then he’s going to get the kind of criticism that he, to me at least so far, is trying to avoid.”
FSU Athletics Media Relations Director Rob Wilson declined comment on the media coverage of the school’s starting QB, but did say his department isn’t keeping Winston under wraps – even though the redshirt freshman’s lawyers have issued a gag order on any question concerning the case against him. And that’s a subject the media are much more interested in right now than anything Winston could do on the football field.