The gossip and celebrity news site TMZ was first with the news that Kobe Bryant had died Sunday in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California. The report was so early, in fact, that many social media users questioned its accuracy.
TMZ wasn’t wrong. Bryant was killed along with eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter.
But that didn’t spare TMZ from criticism even after the news was confirmed: Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff, said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that the authorities had not contacted Bryant’s family before TMZ published its report.
“It would be extremely disrespectful to understand your loved one has perished and to learn about it from TMZ,” Villanueva said. “That is just wholly inappropriate.”
Whenever a big story breaks, news organizations have to gauge how fast is too fast. For reports on tragedies, journalists face the issue of whether or not to put their drive to be first above sensitivity toward victims and members of their family.
With the breakneck pace of reporting ushered in by digital media, reporters looking to be first also put themselves at risk of publishing or broadcasting false reports, a pitfall that was in evidence as journalists competed to confirm the death of the 41-year-old basketball star so famous that he went by one name.
Here’s a look at how Bryant’s death was handled in the moments after the news broke.
Some outlets were cautious, and told their readers why
The Los Angeles Times exercised caution as it worked to confirm the TMZ report, using its Twitter account to tell readers that it would not publish the news before verifying it.
“We are aware of reports about Kobe Bryant and are currently investigating,” the newspaper said on Twitter at 2:36 p.m. Eastern time. “We will update here as soon as we can confirm anything.”
Once it published its report, the Los Angeles Times, which had covered Bryant’s 20-year career as a Los Angeles Laker, lifted its paywall Sunday to provide easier access to its articles about him.
NBC News also showed restraint, posting on Twitter at 2:42 p.m.: “We are working to determine and confirm who was on board the helicopter.”
Others made big mistakes in the rush for the story
During ABC’s broadcast of the Pro Bowl, the annual NFL all-star game, Matt Gutman, the chief national correspondent at ABC News, falsely reported that all of Bryant’s children — four daughters, including an infant — “were believed to be” killed in the crash.
Later in the day, Los Angeles officials confirmed the death of one of Bryant’s daughters, Gianna.
On Sunday night, Gutman acknowledged the error on Twitter, saying, “I apologize to Kobe’s family, friends and our viewers.” He also apologized on air.
Social media lit up Sunday afternoon with the false report that Rick Fox, a onetime teammate of Bryant’s, was also aboard the helicopter. That rumor seems not to have been based on any news report, but rose on its own out of conversation on social media. Jared Greenberg, a host and reporter on NBA TV, debunked the information with a tweet at 3:37 p.m., saying he had communicated with Fox.
“PLEASE STOP spreading ‘news’ unless you personally can confirm it!” he wrote.
The loose reporting and social-media discussion may have been a factor in President Donald Trump’s inaccurate tweet a little before 4 p.m. While most outlets were reporting that Bryant had been one of five people killed in the crash, Trump said reports indicated that Bryant “and three others” were dead.
The cacophony of conflicting narratives caused many people on social media to complain about news organizations’ haste. Andrew Doughty, a podcaster who discusses college sports on his show, received more than 600,000 likes for a tweet that called for some journalists to “lose their jobs today for rushing reports.”
Many of the initial stories elided or glossed over a young woman’s accusation in 2003 that Bryant had raped her in Colorado. The criminal case against him was dropped in 2005.
After reaching a private settlement with his accuser, Bryant said in a statement: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
Obituaries that followed the early coverage for the most part did not shy away from the case.
The BBC was pilloried for a segment about Bryant that was dominated by clips of LeBron James, the younger and still-active Lakers star, playing in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night, when he passed Bryant to become the NBA’s No. 3 all-time scorer.