When is the Right Time to Break Tragic News?

By: Bridget Kraus

How soon after a tragic event happens should news outlets be able to post publicly about them? It seems as though certain news sources broadcast about tragedies in barely any time at all after the fact. News posts covering these events do not leave any time for those directly impacted by the event (i.e. family, close friends, etc.) to have a mourning period. There are outlets that stand out in terms of this fast-paced posting protocol. In particular, TMZ is known for posting tragic stories within minutes of them occurring. 

In the wake of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant’s death, TMZ was the first to tell the news. According toTMZ’s post, Bryant passed away in a helicopter crash January 26th, 2020. They broke the news seemingly instantaneously after the incident took place, at about 11:30 am. Tragedy struck, and TMZ was on it in the blink of an eye.

If that’s not enough, Bryant’s family had to learn about the death of a husband and a father through the words of TMZ. The Los Angeles Police Department had been working on telling the family the news; however, it seemed that TMZ had already beat them to the finish line. Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County Sheriff, said, “It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one has perished and you learn about it from TMZ.” Media organizations should wait to receive confirmation from authorities that families have been notified regarding tragedies such as this. 

In the United States, the constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, so there are no laws to prevent news organizations from doing what TMZ did in the case of Kobe Bryant. However, compassion, along with basic human decency, do not seem to have been a factor in their decision to break the news. Did TMZ just want the publicity that goes with being the first to release a story? Human lives were lost in this accident, so there should be a line that can’t be crossed when it comes to respecting those who were deeply affected by the loss. In the end, what is more important: freedom of the press, or respecting the needs of the victims involved? How soon after an incident happens should news sources be able to publicize it? In this case with Kobe Bryant and his family, the respect for human feelings was sacrificed. 

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This Article Has 14 Comments
  1. Jaden Watkins says:

    Bridget,

    This was a great post and was timed well due to how widely covered this recent tragedy was in the news. I’ve personally never really thought about what I would do if I worked for a news outlet in regards of when to break the news of a tragedy. I think you make a great point about freedom of speech and press; news sources should be able to post whatever they want, however being respectful and appropriate should be a priority. It’s interesting to see what news outlets have more of a “human” outlook on events that have occurred and recognize that these events involve real people, and which see every event, person, and piece of news as just a story.

  2. Yujun Mei says:

    I think it is a good question. Breaking tragic news needs to concern about audiences’ attitude. It is very essential to make research on various media platform. To illustrate, when the number of people who talking about the tragic news becomes less and less, it means that the time to break the tragic news is coming soon. However, it is also important to seek some happy news that could help audiences forget the sadness.

  3. Jacob Swinn says:

    I recently listened to a podcast with Bill Simmons and J.A. Adande where Adande, who is the Director of Sports Journalism at Northwestern University, defended TMZ and said that it is the job of a journalist to break the news as quickly as possible (while getting it right, obviously). Adande’s rationale was that there will never be a good time to break tragic news to a family, and he said that TMZ did the right thing by getting the news out quickly. I do understand what Adande was saying and he obviously knows more about the role of journalism than I do, but I still find it very hard to be supportive of the fact that Kobe’s family had to find out through social media/TMZ.

  4. Klaire Olson says:

    This is a very well-timed and thoughtful question to ask, one that I think involves a lot of grey area. While journalist job description is to get information out factual information quickly and effectively, TMZ has always been a controversial source as far as the extent they’re willing to go to release this info. It is very hard to agree with TMZ morals after finding out the Bryant family found out through essentially a celebrity gossip column, rather than the police and was quite tasteless. Yet, TMZ was doing the job they promised their consumers they would- the first to release all celebrity news. While TMZ was breaking any laws, it is something hard to accept as you try to have empathy for the families who were most affected by such a tragedy.

  5. Student says:

    This is a question that comes up in journalism a lot and should always be considered, especially when approaching a tragedy involving someone who was known and loved by many. I remember when I first heard the news I had searched it up online to confirm if it was true or not and the first news source that popped up was TMZ. I do agree that freedom of speech is a right that everyone holds, but in terms of journalism it is necessary to always value and consider ethics before publishing any sort of news piece.

  6. Kyra Flynn says:

    This is a question that comes up in journalism a lot and should always be considered, especially when approaching a tragedy involving someone who was known and loved by many. I remember when I first heard the news I had searched it up online to confirm if it was true or not and the first news source that popped up was TMZ. I do agree that freedom of speech is a right that everyone holds, but in terms of journalism it is necessary to always value and consider ethics before publishing any sort of news piece.
    (the previous comment was accidentally posted when I was logged in as a student)

  7. Penny says:

    Hi,

    I really liked reading this post. Personally, I know one of the families involved in this incident. John Altobelli’s family and friends had also found out about this tragedy through TMZ. It’s so sad and is an invasion of privacy in some way. It is very unprofessional to release something so tragic, so soon without any approval from family. Obviously from a journalistic standpoint, ethics is very important.

  8. Kyra Lindsay says:

    I think this is a very tough question to answer. Fans believe they have a right to know everything as soon as it happens, but many do not think of how the families find out. I think when one enters into the limelight, this is something that is already considered. One’s news no longer belongs to just them or their loved ones because their loved ones are so plentiful. I feel as long as the news is factual, people have the right to report. It is a large gray area and hard to navigate. Do fans have the right to the quick information? I would say so. However, being aware of feelings I think is very important.

  9. Katie Corah says:

    I wrote a similar piece on this subject. It’s crazy to think that the family wasn’t able to receive the news first before TMZ decided to drop the ball. It’s disrespectful and they are only trying to get engagers to share their post. I’ll admit, I shared their Instagram post when I saw it as soon as I could not even thinking about if the family knew. Of course, my post couldn’t have circulated to their feeds but still, the information gets to them fast.

  10. Rhianna Comito says:

    Great post Bridget! There is definitely a delicate balance between letting the public know, but giving time for, in this case, Kobe’s family to hear it from the police. It is disrespectful for TMZ to have done that. It’s not like the police were going to wait a long time before they broke the news to Kobe’s family. Was it really necessary for TMZ to post before the family knew? I don’t think so. In my head though, TMZ doesn’t have a good reputation, so they can’t really make it any worse. In their heads, they might as well be the first one’s to cover the news.

  11. Amelia Whitford says:

    Bridget,

    I thought your post was well organized and thought out, specifically when you provided a detailed example of how media outlets rush into publishing tragic events to the public. I also agree with what you said about considering compassion and human decency before publishing something so fast. Even though the constitution allows freedom of speech and freedom of the press, it is still important to show some human decency. I remember hearing about the death of Kobe Bryant and before there was complete confirmation about what exactly happened, TMZ and other media outlets posted false statements before knowing the truth. A media outlet shouldn’t be allowed to publish something without knowing all the facts, especially if it regards a tragic event.

  12. Monty Miller says:

    Often times I think that the general public forgets that celebrities and influencers are real people too with emotions, family, and friends. We don’t truly think about how hard it must be to live in the spotlight and all of your personal life out in the open. It blows my mind that TMZ was able to post about the death of Kobe before even the family themselves was notified. This to me is extremely sad, disrespectful and honestly concerning for the future of our media as well as privacy.

  13. Ben Feng says:

    I think there’s a gray area here. Every media outlet wants to be the first one to report breaking news. And ultimately, whoever broke the news first may have received backlash regardless. I think what’s most important is that the truth was reported; there were several other websites that reported incorrect casualties – where was the backlash there? Additionally, the founder of TMZ said that the site got permission to break the news from “Kobe’s people” and that Vanessa had already been notified.

  14. Cameron Lewis says:

    I found this post to be very well written and relevant to many of the ethics we’ve learned throughout the term thus far. As a resident of Los Angeles county and a life-long Kobe Bryant fan, like many there was no way in hell I initially believed the news from TMZ. TMZ usually consist of tabloid gossip filled with celebrities who hold no personal value in many of our lives. But in case, they defied our expectations and dropped a bomb of a lifetime. While every ounce of me wants to hate TMZ, from an outsider perspective I recognize the urge to release the biggest news of the decade thus far. However, Is “clout” worth airing a families initial well grief, heartbreak publicly? Never has been and never will be.

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