Updated: Feb 3, 2020
The Problem with the Need to be First
On Sunday afternoon, many people were casually scrolling through Twitter, as per usual, only to discover, around 2:30 pm, via TMZ, one of their hero’s had passed. Kobe Bryant’s death has been especially difficult for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons, but one consensus that seemed to be shared by the general public was how mishandled the reporting on this sensitive matter was. Unironically, TMZ was the first media outlet to break the story, many initially believing it was a hoax, but shortly after, other reports from other media outlets began pouring in. However, as time stretched, each story was different from the next. With a subject matter of this magnitude, you would think news outlets would handle reporting with caution. Rather, many outlets were trying to push a story as quickly as possible with a complete disregard for facts or any code of ethics. It’s time to address the issue of how too many news outlets/ journalistic reporting, report for the sake of it, lacking any intention, attention, or care. The ways in which words are used to inform, provide context, explain, examine, highlight, and convey are important, and no industry knows that better than journalism. Reporting without regard of impact can have psychological repercussions on those affected by the story being told which in this case, is millions of people. Consequently, journalism has become another self-serving industry as some media outlets don’t have their audiences’ best interest, for they only print, post, and record what will sell no matter the cost or means.
This discussion of "rushed reporting" resurfaced a viral video of Denzel Washington from a red-carpet interview for the movie Fences. In the interview he says, “If you don’t read the newspaper you’re uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” Which then prompts the interviewer to ask, “So, what do you do?” His response,
“What a responsibility you all have [he motions to other journalists and reporters] to tell the truth. Not just to be first, but to tell the truth. We live in a society now where it's just first. Who cares? Get it out there. We [referring to other news outlets] don’t care who it hurts. We don’t care who we destroy. We don’t care if it's true. Just say it. Sell it.”
I think Denzel’s words have been true for a while now but are especially relevant in the context of how the covering of Kobe’s death was handled. TMZ reported Bryant's death before his family were notified by officials. This is no precedent for TMZ, so this in no way can be concluded as a mistake. TMZ blatantly lacks integrity when it comes to how they obtain or report a story, and this has been the case for years. TMZ has made a reputation off bullying and harassing and in recent years, they are attempting to solidify their so-called “credibility" by being the first to let the public know of a major celebrity death despite completely lacking any empathy as they'll report regardless of not having the family's consent. The truly unfortunate part about what went down on social media between these news outlets on Sunday was, after a while, TMZ became many people’s only source for accurate reporting. Other news outlets were participating in the sport, Denzel was discussing, of rushed reporting. So many reports were shamelessly inaccurate at the expense of their audience. At what point did being the first to report a story become priority over educating and informing readers?
Some people may think we can’t hold TMZ responsible for irresponsible journalism as 'they’re TMZ after all, who expects morality from them?' We can and need to hold TMZ responsible for their corruption. These news outlets do have a responsibility to uphold the truth no matter size of platform, or past behavior, or reputation. As the public, we are the ones with the power. We are the ones who have popularized these sites, and we are the same ones who can take that power and influence away. We need to collectively learn how to rid our society of something that’s purpose is to no longer serve the public, but to profit off tragedy, humiliation, and exploitation instead.
To be clear, I’m not encouraging animosity between media outlets and the public because I would never want to do that or send that message; however, I do think we should hold these industries with such a high influence accountable for their misconduct. This "need to be first" phenomenon directly compromises any trust between us and them. What kind of message is that sending? The field of journalism is a special one because in the United States, we have a constitutional right to freedom of the press. The press is essential to the very foundation of our democracy; therefore, the relationship between the press and the public is an important one. They keep the public informed, which allows us to have and reclaim our voice from those who try to take it. Reporting needs to be purposeful, informative, empathetic and honest. If we don't have honest reporting, then we have truly undermined the integrity of our democracy.
***Author's Note: There is a petition going around, with over 400,000 signatures, calling for the cancellation of TMZ. I wanted to provide this information so you all are aware of up-to-date news regarding the topics discussed throughout the article.