Here’s why TMZ isn’t to blame for Kobe Bryant news

At 2:24 p.m. EST on Sunday, TMZ broke the news that NBA legend Kobe Bryant was among those killed in a California helicopter crash. The news spread instantly, of course, as the world mourned the former Lakers star, who remained very active in the L.A. basketball community. Nearly everyone — from NBA teams that were playing Sunday afternoon to the President of the United States — paused to reflect on the life and legend of Bryant.

At a news conference later that day, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva took TMZ to task for breaking the news of Bryant’s death so quickly:

“It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one … perished and you learn about it from TMZ. That is just wholly inappropriate.”

Villaneuva’s comments were in response to a question from a reporter about why he refused to confirm the identities of the 9 people who were aboard the helicopter when it crashed.

I created a miniature firestorm on Twitter when I tweeted Monday afternoon that the LAC sheriff was wrong for blasting TMZ for the timing of its report. Some of those who were upset at what I tweeted thought I was disrespecting Bryant. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. As I wrote earlier in the day on Monday, those criticizing people from being affected and saddened by Bryant’s death were in the wrong. For millions of Americans, particularly Generation X basketball fans, Bryant was very much a part of their lives for a lot of years. Bryant was a player I loved to hate when he was still active, because I was a Spurs fan and the Lakers were a major nemesis for the Spurs in the Shaq-Kobe years. But I respected him for his lethality, and especially for the way he stepped up to become a true role model for young athletes who looked up to him, especially after his retirement.

Many of those who responded were among those who’ve felt wronged by me for various reasons over the years — some over news stories our newspaper has covered, some because we stopped covering middle school championships, some because of an egregious error our paper made in reporting the death of a local prominent citizen last year, and some for different reasons entirely.

Someone said, “If you can’t take the heat, don’t make the tweet.” I happen to agree with that statement. I’m a big boy and I can stand on my own two feet. I don’t need some sort of public affirmation for my opinion. My closest friends love to call me a pot-stirrer and sometimes I admit that I do my fair share to earn that title. I knew when I posted that tweet that it would be an unpopular opinion — but at the same time, it’s hard to explain your opinion in 280 characters and I think some people probably misinterpreted what I meant. I’m okay with people disagreeing with me — even disagreeing harshly. I’m okay with people saying that’s the dumbest take they have read all day. But I won’t deny that some of the responses hurt — big time — because of what was said and where they were coming from: people I have respected, student-athletes past and present whose accomplishments and accolades I’ve worked to try to cover … responses that weren’t just disagreements but personal in nature. I’m a newspaper guy, and especially in a small town where everyone knows everybody, that creates a certain amount of disdain, because news stories have to be written about sensitive subjects without personal emotions attached. But that doesn’t mean that my skin is as thick as it probably should be, even after nearly 20 years in the industry.

I suppose the most telling part of the day was when my 13-year-old son posted a tweet last night that said: “People are TOXIC.” I suspected I knew what he was referring to, but I asked him about it. He said, “I just felt bad for you today. I read all of that stuff on Twitter and I couldn’t believe what some people were saying and I couldn’t believe who some of those people were who were saying it.” My son loved Kobe Bryant. He was hit hard by the news on Sunday. But, even at 13, he got it. You can disagree without devolving the debate into a sludge of nastiness … even in this era where we’re so quick to lash out at anyone whose opinion differs from our own.

Not everybody disagreed by making it personal, of course. One Scott High student asked, “as a journalist, a husband, and a father, how can you think this is okay?” That’s a perfectly legitimate and reasonable question. And lots of others disagreed similarly. So, for those people, this post is my response — since it obviously won’t fit into a tweet or even a thread of tweets.

So, with that said, you don’t have to agree with me that TMZ was in the right. But here’s why I’m going to argue that they were:

Bryant’s helicopter crashed at about 12:45 p.m. EST Sunday afternoon. TMZ’s report was published at 2:24 p.m. EST, nearly two hours later. That isn’t exactly the speed of light in the news industry. The identities of celebrities and even non-celebrities who are killed in tragic accidents are reported more quickly than that on a regular basis.

The immediate question is how did TMZ obtain its information? How does it always obtain its information? When it comes to the deaths of celebrities, TMZ is almost always first … and incredibly accurate. That means the outlet has well-placed sources … and it almost certainly means that it also has well-paid sources. Sources who are embedded within emergency services in L.A. and New York. Sources who are embedded within the coroners’ offices in those cities.

If someone wanted to question TMZ’s ethics for paying sources, that’s fair game. As a journalistic practice, that’s considered a big no-no in most newsrooms. However, that’s not the issue that was raised by the LAC sheriff. He was addressing the speed at which TMZ reported that Bryant was aboard the helicopter.

So there’s a lot to delve into here, but let’s be clear about one thing on the front end: there is an etiquette to breaking news about fatalities. You do want to give authorities appropriate time to release the identities. No one wants to learn of a loved one’s death by just clicking on a news link by happenstance. That’s a gut-punch that’s far worse than the dreaded knock on the door by a law enforcement officer who is trained to break the news gently and provide support if needed. Reporting the news has to be balanced with human dignity and a respect for people.

On a local level, we often learn the identities of accident victims within minutes — certainly in less than an hour — of an accident’s occurrence. But we don’t report that right away, to give authorities the appropriate time to notify the victims’ next of kin. Our rule is no accident scene photos on social media, if it’s a fatality, until such a time, as well. There’s no rule of thumb on exactly how long to wait, so, for us, it’s simple: almost all fatalities that we will report are traffic accidents that are being investigated by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Therefore, when an accident occurs, our first step is to contact the THP’s public information officer and submit a request for the preliminary report. THP is very reliable and easy to work with, and will release a preliminary report fairly quickly — but only after next-of-kin has been notified. And we respect that process. If THP dragged its feet and didn’t release information until days later, the process wouldn’t work. Fortunately, it is a process that does work.

Back to L.A., keep in mind that the sheriff’s comments were made hours after the crash occurred, and were in response to a question about why he wasn’t confirming the identities. As of late Monday, the identities of the crash victims still hadn’t been “officially” confirmed the coroner’s office in L.A.

If you read the reaction to the sheriff’s comments, a lot of people assumed that the sheriff was saying that Bryant’s wife and the rest of his family learned of his death from the TMZ report. But if you re-read the sheriff’s comments, he doesn’t actually say that, and appears to be speaking hypothetically about why he wasn’t confirming the identities at that point, several hours later. Keep in mind that LAC authorities and TMZ have tangoed many times in the past when it comes to the deaths of celebrities — such as Whitney Houston’s death, which TMZ was also the first to report. No doubt, the sheriff is frustrated with TMZ. But that time and that place was not the appropriate setting to go after TMZ. The sheriff could’ve made the same point he was making without calling out TMZ. That’s the broadest reason why the sheriff was wrong.

So was TMZ wrong to report Bryant’s death so quickly? I think the answer is no. It goes back to the original timeline: Nearly an hour and 45 minutes had passed between when the helicopter went down and when TMZ’s report was published. In the meantime, the LAC sheriff’s office had been actively breaking news about the crash on Twitter. At 1:14 p.m. EST — about a half-hour after the crash occurred — the sheriff’s office tweeted that there was a downed aircraft. At 1:34 p.m. EST, the sheriff’s office tweeted that the downed aircraft was a helicopter, that the flames had been extinguished, and included photos from the scene. At 2:25 p.m. EST, which was almost simultaneous with TMZ’s report at 2:24 p.m. EST, the sheriff’s office confirmed that there were five fatalities and no survivors.

It is almost unthinkable that within that timeframe, authorities hadn’t had time to notify Bryant’s family. If it’s published that the family had, in fact, not been notified and that they learned of Bryant’s passing from TMZ’s report, I will eat my words. I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, TMZ founder Harvey Levin said in a Tuesday radio interview that the site had spoken to Kobe Bryant’s reps before publishing its report and confirmed that his wife, Vanessa, had been notified. Could that be a baseless claim? Certainly. But imagine the egg on TMZ’s face if Bryant’s reps stepped forward to contradict Levin’s comments, saying they hadn’t been contacted. So it seems pretty likely that TMZ did, in fact, confirm with Bryant’s reps that Vanessa had been notified of her husband’s death.

Here’s why TMZ, which is owned by the same parent company that owns CNN, wasn’t wrong: just about every media outlet in the world piggy-backed off the original report. Many of the more prominent outlets used their own sources to verify the TMZ report, but those reports were flying very quickly, within minutes (in some cases, within seconds) of the initial report by TMZ. That includes ESPN and many others. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, a highly-respected NBA reporter, was one of the last major journalistic sources to confirm Bryant’s death, and his report came at 2:51 p.m. EST, about 27 minutes after TMZ’s initial report.

If the argument is that authorities theoretically hadn’t had time to notify the families, how much time would’ve been appropriate? Would the two hours and six minutes (the timing of Adrian Wojo’s tweet) have been more appropriate than the hour and 39 minutes that elapsed between the crash and TMZ’s report? That really isn’t a very significant difference.

Some have suggested that TMZ should’ve waited until authorities confirmed the identities. But that process would’ve taken hours, if not days. And there’s no way you can keep a lid on information for that long. If the official news sources, who rely on their readers’ trust, had sat by and waited on the authorities to release the names, bloggers and twitter accounts all over the world would’ve inevitably released that information.

The point is that if TMZ hadn’t published its information when it did, other outlets would’ve quickly followed — and it would’ve been within minutes, not hours.

So if TMZ is going to be condemned, the sheriff should’ve probably condemned the news media in general. Sure, all those other outlets may have been just confirming what TMZ originally reported … but by publishing information from a TMZ report quickly, they’re really no different from TMZ, which published information from a confidential source quickly.

If the sheriff has an ax to grind, it’s with whomever provided that information to TMZ. Clearly, there are leaks somewhere within — if not the sheriff’s own department, then somewhere else within LAC emergency services. (According to Levin, the initial tip came from a law enforcement officer, meaning it was very possibly someone from the sheriff’s department.) It’s very likely that the person providing that information did so with the promise of a paycheck from TMZ — but, as I said above, TMZ’s ethics of paying sources weren’t what the sheriff was questioning at the press conference.

Meanwhile, TMZ’s report — however quickly it may have been published — was accurate. There were plenty of other news outlets, considered more reputable than TMZ, that got it badly wrong — horrifically wrong. And they somehow managed to escape the crosshairs of criticism.

Consider this: Which is worse? TMZ reporting nearly two hours after the crash that Kobe Bryant was on board? Or ABC News reporting on the air that all four of Kobe Bryant’s children were on the helicopter?

And this: A Washington Post reporter tweeted a flashback to the Kobe Bryant rape case by linking a nearly four-year-old story from The Daily Beast. Keep in mind that Bryant was not charged criminally in connection with those allegations. Is it really relevant to dredge up that old story on the day that the world is mourning his death? What purpose does that serve other than an attempt to taint his legacy? (The Washington Post ultimately suspended the reporter, Felicia Sonmez, for the tweet and related tweets, all of which have since been deleted.)

As the misinformation continued to spread, ABC News walked back its reporter’s earlier comment that all four of Kobe Bryant’s daughters were on board the helicopter, but made another mistake in the process by reporting that none of his daughters were on board. The first source to correct that report by confirming that one daughter, Gigi, had perished on the flight was, ironically enough, TMZ.

But because the LAC sheriff, for whatever reason, chose to take issue with the timing of TMZ’s report, it is TMZ alone that is bearing the brunt of the blame. Look, I still think it’s a sleazy news organization. I still won’t follow or read it. But to hang TMZ in effigy for its work in reporting Bryant’s death just simply isn’t right. At the very least, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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