Last Saturday while I was out with friends, I received a harrowing text message. It was from my one of my cousins in Ohio whom I haven’t talked to in a few months.
“Strange,” I thought before swiping right to open the text.
The text said that my older cousin Will Smith, the former NFL Saints player, had been murdered. Accompanying the text was a photo of him. He said to pray for Will’s wife and children. I don’t remember too much after that. Unfortunately, I have felt this feeling before. This is not the first time gun violence has affected my life. But man, did this one hurt. According to reports, Will was driving home with his wife when a fender bender occurred. An argument ensued with the other driver, Will’s wife was shot, and in his attempt to defend her, Will was also shot multiple times. He died shortly after.
When I was growing up, I remember hearing about how great of a football player my older cousin Will was. At each year’s family reunion my uncles would update me about his career at the Ohio State University, and later I saw his talent for myself when he played in the NFL for the Saints. I was so upset that I couldn’t go to the family reunion in New Orleans the year after he and his team won the Super Bowl. I ironically passed on that opportunity to participate in a journalism program.
Yet, last Saturday when I received that message, I didn’t see it through the eyes of a journalist. I saw it as a cousin who couldn’t believe someone would dare bring harm to her family member. The news about my cousin’s death — unsurprisingly — spread quickly. I woke up the next morning, eyes still swollen from crying, to a barrage of #RIPWillSmith tweets on my timeline and news stories.
As someone aspiring to enter journalism professionally, I had an acute eye on the coverage of Will’s life. With a story like this, it’s so easy to just focus on the sensationalism and forget that there are actual family members who are grieving and experiencing a void of loss that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
In this current political election, with all regular news of gun violence and the words “black-on-black” crime being casually tossed around in debates, it’s so easy to simplify complex stories.
As I scrolled through my timeline looking through all the Will Smith coverage, I also ran across a story from BuzzFeed about black trauma and how the media exploits and captures the pain of African Americans and packages it as entertainment. Think about how in 2010 Antoine Dodson’s recounting of his sister’s attempted rape became the “Bed Intruder” song or how Sweet Brown’s story of her house burning down is just remembered as the woman with the bandana who said “cold pop.” News becomes news when it’s stranger than fiction, but it seems for African Americans who express that pain, it becomes funny and shareable.
I was afraid the media’s coverage of my cousin’s death might spiral into something like that. His celebrity might be exploited. I was afraid that he would become another example of black violence. But he was much more than that. He was my older cousin.
So last Sunday as I watched the hashtag #RIPWillSmith trend and read news organization’s tweets and listened to the press conferences it made me proud to be a journalist. It seemed like they were also genuinely shocked at his death. All the stories they wrote had official statements; there wasn’t speculation in who provoked the argument. In Will’s obituary they talked about their positive interactions with him and how he had effected change down in the Big Easy. TV commentators asked officials how his wife was doing and talked about the impact this must have for her emotionally. I could see the human element in this story. Most of the photos they shared of him was of him with his wife and children.
Today’s 24-hour news cycle gets a lot of flak. Sometimes it is rightfully so because it perpetuates the idea that time needs to be filled with stories, even if they are not fully reported or thought through. Yet, now, as I step into this industry full-time as a journalist in a few weeks, I have a restored faith. Will’s story was protected by this industry. In this past week, news organizations helped the public realize his legacy. They honored the tenets of journalism, they humanized the story and they made me proud.
Even in the wake of this tragedy, I found a glimmer of hope. May my cousin Will Smith rest in peace and may journalists keep doing their jobs.
After reading “Wait An L.A. Minute” on Tuesdays, join Jordyn Holman in her millennial conversations on Twitter @JordynJournals. She’s a senior studying print and digital journalism.