A predictable cycle has emerged from media coverage of traumatic events like mass shootings or the suicides of famous people: first the news of the terrible thing, then the rush to report as many details as possible, then the backlash to the publication of those details.
That third arc of the cycle is relatively new. In 2012, after a mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater, victims’ loved ones asked the media to withhold the the perpetrator’s name, lest he be covered in perverse glory, or inspire other crazies to create mayhem.
“If you keep making these people infamous,” the father of a victim in Colorado told me a few months ago, “you should be sorry for the next people who die. Are you willing to take that risk -- that children will die because of what you do?”
I tried, respectfully, to disagree. But he was adamant. “The only reason you keep doing it is for money,” he said. “You are just as bad as the people who do the blood diamond thing.”
I don’t see it that way, but I understand the passion around the issue, and I try to be as sympathetic as possible. My sympathy ends, though, at withholding basic information like names, especially when the news is still fresh. (For this story, the Colorado killer’s name is irrelevant.)
With dead celebrities, in this case the beloved Robin Williams, pressure is now on to suppress details about how he killed himself, lest others suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts be moved to copy his actions.
On Tuesday, Marin County Assistant Deputy Chief Coroner Lt. Keith Boyd gave a throng of journalists a fairly detailed account of how Williams was found after having apparently killed himself in an unspecified room of his Tiburon home.
I watched a live feed. Boyd repeated several times how Williams seemed to have died of asphyxia. The Oscar-winning actor and comedian was found with a belt around his neck, with one end of the belt jammed between a door and its jamb. By the time Williams was discovered by his personal assistant, suspended in a seated position above the floor, rigor mortis had already set in.
Despite the graphic nature of this description, other salient details around the suicide are being protected. Boyd equivocated about whether Williams had left a suicide note, and said the question would be answered several weeks from now when Marin County officials release the autopsy. At that time, he said, we will also learn whether Williams had drugs or alcohol in his system, which will lead to a discussion of his sobriety, a topic that Williams addressed numerous times.
(Is the public entitled to know the contents of a suicide note, if one exists? Of course not, unless it is addressed to the world, rather than his loved ones. But even then, that’s his family’s call.)
Two main questions have been raised by critics of disclosure in the Williams case: Was is it appropriate for the Marin County coroner to discuss the method by which he died? And will reporting the details lead to copycat suicides?
As for first question, celebrity suicides are not secret acts. Williams was a very public figure. The public deserves to know how he died.
Had he killed himself with a gun, we would have been entitled to know how he obtained it, whether it was legal, and whether something could have been done to prevent him from having it. Had he killed himself with pills -- or induced someone to accidentally kill him with, say, propofol -- we would have been entitled to know where he got the medicine, who prescribed it, and whether something could have been done to prevent the abuse.
But that has not stopped a torrent of tweets that suggest the information was none of our business.
On Wednesday, the actress Mia Farrow tweeted: “It’d be nice if people would show some basic respect for Robin Williams privacy – even now. We don’t need to know every detail.”
As to the question about copycats, the answer is maybe. “Celebrity suicides can spark copycat deaths, going back at least to the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, some studies have found,” wrote Indianapolis Star reporter John Russell. “The month after Monroe's death, the U.S. suicide rate climbed 12 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.”
Likewise, Russell reported, after rock star Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, “suicide experts noticed a spike in reports.”
There is no way to put a lid on bad news of this magnitude.
But many news organizations have published stories about how to spot signs of depression or how to help people who are suicidal, including this one by my colleague Laura Nelson. The American Society for Suicide Prevention has a list of do's and don'ts for journalists to help avoid what researchers call "suicide contagion."
Our task is to tell the truth without glamorizing antisocial behavior. The problem, of course, is that glamorization is in the eye of the beholder.
Please follow me on Twitter: @robinabcarian