The first media outlet to report Prince’s untimely death in Minneapolis on Thursday was TMZ, the famously lowbrow tabloid website based in Los Angeles. (This seemingly random Memphis musician appears to be the first person online to have shared the news, which he later wrote that he had gotten from “a friend of the Prince camp.”) Much of the initial reaction online—perhaps understandably motivated in part by the hope that a beloved cultural icon had not in fact died—questioned whether TMZ’s reporting was reliable.
(See many more examples here.)
Similar skepticism was evident in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s earlier writeup of TMZ’s report last Friday that Prince had been rushed to a hospital in Illinois:
You may have heard the hubbub on Friday, first reported by TMZ, not necessarily the bastion of accuracy. Prince’s private plane made an emergency landing early Friday morning in Illinois as he was returning to the Twin Cities from two shows in Atlanta on Thursday. TMZ said he had the flu. (He had postponed the Atlanta show from the previous week because of the flu.)
Unfortunately—as with a lot of other dark stories it’s been the first to cover, sometimes because it paid for information—TMZ was right on this one. Most famously, the site reported Michael Jackson’s death before anyone else; it also broke news about Heath Ledger’s death, Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna, Ray Rice’s assault on his now-wife, the tape of Donald Sterling making racist remarks, and several more big stories. (As this tweet notes, though, the site did report in 2013 that “it doesn’t look good” for Lil Wayne, who TMZ asserted was in critical condition in an induced coma. Wayne, however, left the hospital a few days later after associates said TMZ’s account of his condition had been exaggerated, and he’s still alive.)
It’s good to be skeptical of any single report, but at this point it also seems clear that TMZ is pretty good at what it does and shouldn’t be dismissed—even if it’s reporting the kind of news that you’d rather not hear.