Please, spare us the details about celebrity suicides

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
August 14, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

Bad news sells newspapers. It’s more effective clickbait than dancing cats, more effective even than manically laughing babies.

A bad news story, needless to say, that involves someone of fame, someone of reverence, is news baron ambrosia.

Death in a car crash, a plane crash, a fancy schmancy hotel room overdose, and the coverage will be gratuitous, inescapable and a familiar blend of life-in-the-fast-lane mythology/cautionary-tale/sycophantic exaltation.

So what happens then when there are no flames, no burnt rubber tyre-tracks and no elevator security-cam videos? What happens when that bad news tale comes at one’s own hand on the back of years of well-documented mental health battles?

The answer, evidently, is that reporting follows exactly the same trajectory as any other celebrity death: legend gone too soon/how “Hollywood” has reacted/photo montage complete with mawkish musak.

A caveat, however, exists. Quite literally. Most articles on Robin Williams’ death end with a due-diligence warning. A phone number. Just in case something saddening is triggered.

The undercurrent of that caveat – and now the focus of a new batch of articles – is about the notoriously tricky terrain of suicide coverage.

About just how much detail to provide.

About the fear of copycats.

About what responsibility media outlets have when it comes to the mental health of the public.

Hard-core pornography. Violent video games. Coverage of sex crimes. These are the starting points for most media-effects discussions. About whether consumption of such material changes our attitudes, changes our behaviour. About whether “having the conversation” is worth the bogey-monster “cost”.

Few media scholars would actually ever mount a monkey-see, monkey-do argument in our modern mediascape of information overload. The idea that one source, one article, has more power than any other is laughable, inflammatory and grossly naïve.

People don’t kill themselves for any one reason, and no newspaper article – no matter how rich and revolting in detail – nor for that matter any single heartstring-tugging tweet, will be the catalyst for a suicide. We’ve moved beyond the magic bullet theory of the press.

This doesn’t, however, mean such coverage should go on unquestioned.

On one hand we have my belief that celebrities occupy too much of our attention. That the consequence of this is an insatiable public appetite for ever more detail about the private lives of people we don’t really know. On the other hand, I believe that information is a good thing, that knowledge is a good thing, and that reporting on the death of a famous person is essential and unavoidable.

So what form, then, should such reporting take? Do we need, say, to know about body posturing? Wrist wounds? Contents of the toxicology report? In whose interests is the reporting of the tragic minutiae?

I’m a details person. Ghoulishly so. I do want to know the gory, the lewd, and every bit of the nitty gritty that I have absolutely no entitlements to. If it’s out there, I will devour it. Ravenously.

I don’t bloody want it out there.

I want my prurient interests tempered. More than that, I want us to stop gussying up voyeurism with the delusion of “public good”.

The simple knowledge that a famous person killed themselves will, of course, spark essential conversations about mental health, about depression, about the ubiquitousness of dissatisfaction. We don’t have more of those conversations, or better quality ones, however, knowing what method Williams used.

A civilised society doesn’t go through each other’s rubbish bins, doesn’t record each other’s conversations, and we don’t go into enter private homes without being invited.

Voracious public interest, empty column inches and innumerable television minutes to fill is insufficient grounds to turn a tragedy into a spectacle. We need to be better than that.

© Lauren Rosewarne