Celebrities, whether they are actors, royalty or anyone else who has captured the curiosity and intrigue of the general public, have a larger-than-life personality. Everything they do is magnified from what they wear, what they eat, where they go on vacation, and how they died. When writing about celebrity deaths, it is important for journalists to use common sense in their reporting.
There is nothing wrong with reporting that someone has died. Newspapers around the world publish this information. In the case of celebrities, their family members or appointed spokesperson will inform the public as to the cause of death. Sometimes, publishing the symptoms a celebrity was experiencing can, and has, led others to seek medical treatment for themselves.
Accolades regarding the celebrity’s accomplishments, tributes and other remembrances are a part of public and private grieving. Once the subject of their death spills over into innuendo and gossip, then it becomes a problem. This is where journalists need to step back and realize that they are writing about people who still have families and friends who are as capable of performing searches on the Internet as anyone else and who are grieving.
Information about celebrity deaths should be handled with no less professionalism than any awards they had won or charities they founded. Whether celebrities die from natural causes, suicide, accident, or any other cause, journalists should use a combination of sensitivity, respect and common sense in their reporting. Stories that add statements that are not true or foster gossip are not adhering to ethical journalistic practices.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics addresses the issue of gossip and sensationalism. “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage” and “show good taste” by avoiding lurid speculation, are two key statements that can be too easily tossed aside when reporting about famous people. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press does not mean anything goes. It is up to journalists to stop and think of how they would feel if the cause of death of someone in their own family was subjected to gossip.
Journalists have a responsibility to their readers to report the news. That is their job. Even in the course of doing that job, they need to remain aware of how the news could affect others. The subject of suicide is particularly delicate. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), if handled insensitively, a report of suicide can lead to copycat suicides.
The link below to Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide includes what to say and not say, and why. It also lists warning signals and offers suggestions on how journalists and bloggers should report on the topic without sensationalizing or promoting misinformation. It is important, regardless of the celebrity’s cause of death, that journalists be as respectful of what is not said as well as what is already public knowledge. This commitment to common sense reporting will help in distributing the news without the loss of journalistic credibility or integrity.
Editorial by Cynthia Collins
Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide