A source who trusted the AP called with the first news of Cicely Tyson’s death.
Preparedness years in the making ensured that AP’s story captured her remarkable legacy.
New York national writer Hillel Italie took a call Thursday evening from a longtime source with an unexpected tip: Groundbreaking actress Cicely Tyson, known for her roles playing strong, fiercely dignified Black women, was dead. Despite her age, Tyson had just released a memoir and was doing promotional interviews, so the news was surprising. The source stressed that Tyson’s representatives wanted the news broken by a reputable outlet, and so they chose The Associated Press, and Italie in particular.
Italie, who handles many of the AP Entertainment celebrity obits, set off to get the news on the wire quickly, while also alerting colleagues so that photo and video could get started on their content.
The AP had complete prep on the 96-year-old Tyson, thanks to entertainment writer Mark Kennedy, who had met her years earlier after she won a Tony Award. During that ceremony, organizers had pressured Tyson to “wrap” her speech quickly, causing much criticism that they had not treated the legendary actress with the respect she deserved. Kennedy decided that when the time came, the AP wanted to make sure her obituary captured the breadth and achievement of her life and career.
Tyson was an inspiration to generations of Black actors, especially women, for her refusal to play characters that depicted Black people in stereotypical ways, even if that meant going without work. Oprah Winfrey, former President Barack Obama and dignitaries from around the country expressed sorrow at her passing, which Kennedy weaved into the obituary. Meanwhile, other entertainment staffers worked on complementary pieces, including a reaction piece, an appreciation and an update on her recent work.
The AP was alone with the story for at least 15 minutes. By the time others got their alerts out, AP already had a story of 800-plus words on the wire. The story earned more than 265,000 page views and became a front page headline for many newspapers including The Dallas Morning News. The video version of the obit was the most-used entertainment video last week, and AP photos were also widely used.
Celebrity obituaries are intensely competitive; Italie and Kennedy kept AP well in front, through source work, commitment and solid preparation. For that, they win AP’s Best of the Week award.