By Richard Lee
In a busy media week that included the Super Bowl, the Iowa Caucuses and the State of the Union, the anniversary of one of the music world’s most tragic events did not receive the attention it usually garners.
Feb. 3 was the 61st anniversary of the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson. The plane crashed in Iowa, but that is not the accident’s only connection with current events.
The Jan. 26 helicopter crash that claimed the life of Kobe Bryant and eight others re-focused attention on the need to notify family members in a timely manner when a death occurs.
TMZ was first news outlet to report Bryant’s death, and the website’s information was accurate. In that respect, TMZ complied with a basic tenet of good journalism: Get it first and get it right.
But apparently the website broke the news before law enforcement authorities had an opportunity to inform Bryant’s family.
“It would be extremely disrespectful to understand your loved one has perished and to learn about it from TMZ,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters at a news conference a few hours after the crash. “That is just wholly inappropriate.”
In cases such as the helicopter crash, journalists generally respect the privacy of loved ones and wait until authorities have informed them of the news. But there are exceptions and gray areas that will always be debated.
Back in 1959, practices and policies for notifying loved ones were different – for journalists and for law enforcement.
“In Texas, a neighbor told Holly’s mother to turn on the radio. When the news report came out, she screamed and collapsed,” Time reporter Claire Suddath wrote in a 2009 article about the 50th anniversary of the crash. “In Greenwich Village, Buddy Holly’s pregnant wife heard the news on television and suffered a miscarriage the following day, reportedly due to ‘psychological trauma.'”
According to Suddath, it was after the accident that authorities adopted a policy against releasing victims’ names until the families had been notified. It’s a policy that made sense in 1959 when Holly, Valens and Richardson perished. And despite the speed with which news travels today, it’s still the right policy for 2020.