At 2:24 p.m. ET, TMZ posted the story that stunned the world on Sunday: Basketball legend Kobe Bryant, at the age of 41, had died in a California helicopter crash.
The tectonic news, which the celebrity-gossip website was first to report, swept the nation as other news organizations quickly confirmed the story.
It also upset police who suggested the speed in which TMZ had reported the news – a little more than an hour after police said they received reports of a downed aircraft – outpaced that of officers who were seeking to notify the family members of victims.
During a press conference, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva took a swipe at the website when explaining to reporters why he would not yet confirm the identities of those who were aboard the helicopter when it crashed.
“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.”
Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami also jabbed TMZ in a tweet.
“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported … Kobe had passed,” Murakami wrote. “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.”
A representative for TMZ, which is owned by WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, did not respond on Sunday to requests for comment.
Bryant’s death was the latest in a string of tragic celebrity-death scoops TMZ has landed since it launched in 2005. In 2009, the website first reported the death of Michael Jackson. In 2012, the outlet broke news that Whitney Houston had died in a bathtub. And in 2016, TMZ was first to inform the world about Prince’s death.
“When it comes to high-profile people, they have an ‘in’ with the kinds of people who know this information,” Matthew Belloni, the editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter, told CNN in a phone interview on Sunday.
Belloni added, “If TMZ reports that a celebrity has died in Los Angeles County, it is almost always correct. For whatever reason, and you can read into this, their accuracy rate in Los Angeles is very, very good.”
TMZ has developed a large network of tipsters over the years. According to a 2016 profile in The New Yorker, the network includes entertainment lawyers, court officials, and others.
The New Yorker reported in its 2016 story that the website sometimes compensates tipsters, something most newsrooms do not.
But Harvey Levin, the founder of TMZ, has downplayed the tactics the website uses to land scoops. During a 2014 interview with Fox News, Levin was asked, “How does TMZ get this stuff?”
“It’s so funny to me that people ask that question,” Levin responded. “We’re a news operation. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do as a news operation is chase down stories. And it always kind of amuses me when people ask that question. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? I mean, that is the job.”
Despite TMZ’s track record of scoops, news organizations are still wary to cite the outlet until they’ve independently confirmed the news.
Belloni told CNN that when he saw TMZ’s story on Bryant’s death, “I thought it was probably right.”
That said, Belloni added, “We always verify and don’t take them at face value. But when I saw that it was TMZ reporting a death in Los Angeles County of a very prominent person, I thought it’s probably right.”
Sharon Waxman, the founder and CEO of The Wrap, expressed a similar sentiment to The Washington Post for a 2016 article the newspaper published on TMZ’s history.
“When they report something, it makes me think they’re probably right, but it might be premature or incomplete,” Waxman said. “Maybe someone had a heart attack, but, no, he didn’t die. That they had much of the story, but not all of the story.”