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Opinion: Media: Is It Informative or Invasive?

It’s been just over a month since the world learned the devastating news about Robin Williams’ death. In the month since his passing, the public and countless notable celebrities expressed their sorrow and sympathy for his family. Despite the outpouring of support, the media has managed to taint any positive messages by overstepping their journalistic boundaries with aggressive reports about his death. Although the public expects the media to supply the news, reports including invasive details of Williams’ death cross the line. The media’s response to Williams’ passing was an excessive and immoral method of reporting.

Robin Williams was a successful, well-liked performer, so his success often exposed him to the prying eyes of the media. Even during his lifetime, media sources often reported on Williams’ struggles with his mental health and substance abuse. These struggles were personal aspects of a public figure’s life. Publishing reports that speculate on these private issues was already inappropriate during Williams’ lifetime, but discussing these issues after he has passed is unfair and unethical.

In the days following Williams’ death, articles began emerging that discussed the grim details of his apparent suicide. Reports included the cause of death, the position he was found in, and apparent self-harm injuries on his body. Perhaps the most shocking publication about Williams’ death occurred on New York Daily News’ August 13 cover. The cover’s massive headline featured the cause of death and the sub-headlines highlighted gruesome details of the death. Typically, articles about a late public figure attempt to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the deceased. New York Daily News, however, was too focused on publishing offensive headlines to grab the attention of prying readers.

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This NY Daily News cover, as well as numerous similar reports, have sparked a debate regarding the amount of details that the public deserves after a prominent figure dies. Christopher Hooton of the Independent states that, “far too many news outlets focused on the specifics of the actor’s suicide” while Paul Farmer of CNN states, “There has been a steady stream of news reports — at first conveying shock and disbelief then, disappointingly, moving on to salacious speculation about the cause and method of his death. Media coverage of mental health and suicide has come a long way over the last few years however, on this occasion; many newspapers got it badly wrong”. These statements are just two voices among the chorus of disapproval towards the media. In the weeks following Williams’ passing, social media sites were inundated with messages condemning the media’s methods of reporting Williams’ death.

Despite the public outcry of disapproval against the media, numerous media outlets have published articles to defend their methods of reporting. The LA Times posted an opinion piece by Andrew Klavan titled “Report the truth — the whole truth — on Robin Williams’ death”. Klavan discusses the importance of reporting every aspect of the story in news pieces, even in the sensitive case of Williams’ death. Klavan states, “It is not a journalist’s job to protect us from the ugly facts. Neither is it his job to protect the sensitive from the painful truth or anyone, really, from anything… Because that’s the journalist’s job: the story. His only job: to tell the whole story straight”. Although Klavan claims that writers are simply fulfilling their journalistic duties by including every detail of the story, this is an incredibly simplistic, narrow-minded approach to viewing news publications. Although there are certainly cases when the public deserves to know every detail of a story, Williams’ death is not one of those situations. The only detail the public needed in this story was his cause of death. The public has no claim to the bleak details of Williams’ passing.

The Society for Professional Journalists outlines a Code of Ethics that writers are expected to respect. An entire section of these guidelines discusses the necessity of minimizing harm. The introduction to this section of the guideline states, “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect”. According to these guidelines, journalists should, “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness”. Liam Allen of BBC News includes similar ethical guidelines in his article discussing Williams’ death. He quotes the BBC’s editorial guidelines as stating, “Care must be taken to avoid describing or showing suicide or self-harming methods in explicit detail”. Numerous writers and media outlets violated these guidelines with their invasive reports on Williams’ death. The public required the basic information about Williams’ death, but the media violated their rightful boundaries by infringing on the privacy of Williams and his family. The deceased deserve privacy after their passing, and excessively reporting and speculating on one’s death ignores their right to die with dignity.

There is a way to tell a sensitive story without delving into the personal details. Certain details are off limits to the media and the public, and journalists should be intelligent and moral enough to recognize details that are too inappropriate to report. The media’s invasive coverage of Williams’ death completely disregarded their journalistic duty to report with sensitivity and respect.

Posted by on October 4, 2014. Filed under Opinions & Editorials,The Week's End. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.