Tectonic news, which the celebrity gossip site was the first to report, swept the country, while other news organizations quickly confirmed the story.
It also bothered the police, who suggested the speed with which the TMZ had reported the news – just over an hour after the police said it had received reports of a crashed aircraft – surpassing that of the officers who were trying to notify the victims' relatives.
During a press conference, Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva took a peek at the site as he explained to reporters why he still did not confirm the identities of those on board the helicopter when it crashed.
"It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one … died and you learn about it from TMZ," said Villanueva. "This is totally inappropriate."
Los Angeles County deputy commander Tim Murakami also poked TMZ in a tweet.
"I am sad to be collecting facts as a reported medium … Kobe had passed," wrote Murakami. "I understand the idea, but please allow time to make personal notifications to your loved ones. It is very cold to hear the loss through the media. It breaks my heart."
A TMZ representative, owned by WarnerMedia, the parent company of CNN, did not respond on Sunday to requests for comment.
Bryant's death was the latest in a series of tragic celebrity death stories that TMZ has landed since its launch in 2005. In 2009, the site first reported the death of Michael Jackson. In 2012, the network broke the news that Whitney Houston had died in a bathtub. And in 2016, TMZ was the first to inform the world about Prince's death.
"When it comes to high-profile people, they are interested in the type of people who know this information," Matthew Belloni, editorial director for The Hollywood Reporter, told CNN in a telephone interview on Sunday.
Belloni added: "If TMZ reports that a celebrity died in Los Angeles County, it is almost always correct. For whatever reason, and you can read that, their accuracy rate in Los Angeles is very, very good."
TMZ has developed a large network of informants over the years. According to a 2016 profile on The New Yorker, the network includes entertainment lawyers, court employees and others.
But Harvey Levin, founder of TMZ, underestimated the tactics the website uses to get information. During a 2014 interview with Fox News, Levin was asked, "How does TMZ get these things?"
"It's so funny for me that people ask that question," replied Levin. "We are a news operation. I mean, this is what you should do while a news operation is chasing stories. And it always amuses me when people ask that question. Isn't that what we should be doing? I mean, this is the work. "
Despite TMZ's history of concessions, news organizations are still concerned with citing the exit until they have independently confirmed the news.
Belloni told CNN that when he saw TMZ's story about Bryant's death, "I thought I was probably right."
That said, Belloni added: "We always check and don't consider them at face value. But when I saw that it was TMZ reporting a death of a very important person in Los Angeles County, I thought I was probably right."
Sharon Waxman, founder and CEO of The Wrap, expressed a similar sentiment to The Washington Post for a 2016 article published by the newspaper about the history of TMZ.
"When they report something, it makes me think they are probably right, but it can be premature or incomplete," said Waxman. "Maybe someone had a heart attack, but no, he didn't die. That they had a lot of the story, but not the whole story."