Student guest post: How TMZ reports deaths, bears bad news and violates ethics

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Maddie Fetsko is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in journalism and communications. After graduation, she plans to move to Los Angeles and participate in UNC’s Hollywood Internship Program.

When someone dies a newsworthy death, it’s second nature for journalists to report it. However, it’s important to note that if journalists don’t know whether the family has been notified of the death, they should wait to report it. It is a fundamental principle of ethics.

Although this seems like common sense, some media outlets have neglected it. Specifically, TMZ.

Almost a month ago, the nation stood in disbelief when TMZ reported the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. He died at the age of 41 in a California helicopter crash alongside Gianna Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter. Shortly after the first report, other news organizations quickly confirmed the story.

Hearts shattered at every headline that broke through. There’s no denying the public’s sadness at the loss of the basketball hero. No individual’s tears outshined another’s. Everyone was a part of an unspoken agreement that everyone was equally hurt.

Although we want to believe we were all hit the same on an emotional level, we cannot ignore the severity of the pain suffered by those closest to Kobe and Gianna. Imagine being a wife, mother, daughter, son, sister or brother, finding out that your loved ones died from a celebrity-gossip news website.

When social media users learned that the deaths were publicly reported before informing the Bryant family, TMZ faced harsh scrutiny. Tim Murakami, undersheriff of Los Angeles County, was one of several law enforcement officers to criticize TMZ on Twitter.

“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported Kobe has passed,” Murakami said. “I understand getting the scoop but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear of the loss via media. Breaks my heart.”

Kobe’s death is only one of many high-profile deaths that TMZ has reported over the years. When TMZ was the first to report Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, TMZ founder Harvey Levin said, “We are totally wired in this town.”

Since the gossip-based website’s launch in 2005, TMZ’s network has grown to include various tipsters, entertainment lawyers and court officials. Matthew Belloni, the editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter, told CNN in a phone interview that if TMZ reports a celebrity death in Los Angeles, it almost always correct.

More recently since the death of Kobe and Gianna, TMZ reported the death of rapper Pop Smoke, born Bashar Barakah Jackson, on Feb. 19. This makes Pop Smoke the second celebrity death reported by TMZ before the family was notified in less than a month.

Several Twitter users joked by tweeting things like “TMZ be knowing you died before the doctors” and “Killers be texting TMZ like ‘it’s done.’”

Laughs aside, some users got serious. Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group, started a social media petition asking advertisers to stop supporting TMZ until the outlet consults with Black families before reporting deaths.

“TMZ has used Black celebrity deaths as a driver for website clicks and profit for far too long,” the petition stated. “TMZ’s lack of journalistic integrity should have consequences.”

One of the major foundations of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is to minimize harm. The code specifically states, “Journalists should balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Reporting a newsworthy death before the family is informed is not only arrogant and intrusive but disrespectful. Steve Buttry, the late director of student media at Louisiana State University, said it best when he said that being the first with the story doesn’t mean you won a journalistic race but lost an ethical one.

Journalists and editors should be cautious when reporting sensitive material. This offers respect to individuals personally affected by death and prevents friction between the media outlet and the general public.