Opinion: Privacy In Journalism — Where do we draw the line?

Jordan Ghita

On Jan. 26, 2020, the news of basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s death stunned the world. However, also shocking was the way in which this news was shared.

TMZ was the first to report the news mere hours after the fatal helicopter crash, before law enforcement officials even had a chance to share the devastating information with the Bryant family.

At this point in time, the crash was still being investigated and the names of victims would not have ordinarily been leaked to the public due to privacy and ethical concerns.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva explained the insensitive nature of the speedy news report to CNN.

"It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one […] perished and you learn about it from TMZ," Villanueva said. "That is just wholly inappropriate."

“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported the Kobe had passed,” Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami said in a Tweet. “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.”

Though the pain that the families of the nine people aboard the helicopter that fateful day must be unimaginably great, the way they were initially given this news would have made it that much more difficult to process.

As the rest of the world was buzzing with confusion and grief, the families were left in a frenzy that gave them no time to come to terms with this earth-shattering news.

To make matters worse, reports coming from other news platforms were littered with inaccuracies in a rush to deliver stories on the deaths.

For instance, during a broadcast of the Pro Bowl by ABC News, a false report was made that all four of Bryant’s children including his infant daughter were “believed to be” killed in the crash, according to The New York Times.

Not only are these mistakes unprofessional, they are also damaging to the families of the victims involved, as they open up fresh wounds and disregard the sensitivity of the situation.

Though reporting is very much based on timeliness in order to deliver relevant news efficiently to the public, journalists are faced with the ethical plight of whether it is more important to be first, or to be mindful of the privacy and well-being of those involved.

Kobe, Inc. President Molly Carter described how harmful the reports have been for the families at the end of January.

“These inaccurate reports only add unnecessary pain to a grieving family," she says.

As Carter explains, in lieu of a tragic event such as this one, news reports that are not handled with the utmost care can often do more harm than good.

It seems that news organizations are often willing to do whatever it takes to be the first to put out an article on a breaking story, and TMZ appears to be the perfect reflection of this dilemma.

CNN reports that TMZ has consistently been the first to report on many celebrity deaths including the death of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince.

The reason for this? According to the New Yorker, TMZ has built a reliable network of tipsters, including entertainment lawyers, court officials, and others. The New Yorker also found TMZ occasionally compensates tipsters for their findings.

Ethics is a delicate task to navigate, but an important one. When regarding subjects on the more sensitive side, such as the deaths of others, it is imperative that reporters prioritize mindful reporting. Without this, journalism becomes mindless in its strife for selfish gain, which is not what it is meant to be.