The death of Robin Williams, and a call to be better

Feature Simon Brew 20 Aug 2014 - 06:57

The tragedy surrounding Robin Williams' passing was made worse by crass reporting in some sectors of the media, Simon writes...

A week or so after the sad news broke, many remain in shock over the death of Robin Williams. The much-loved actor and comedian died at the age of 63, having taken his own life. I can't begin to imagine the depths of despair that he must have fallen into in order to do such a thing, and for his close friends and family, the last few days must have been utterly unbearable. My heart truly goes out to them. I never knew the man, and I was shocked to the core. How they felt I can't begin to comprehend.

I can only dearly hope that the majority of them at least managed to avoid certain quarters of the internet on Tuesday 12th August 2014 though, and the tabloid headlines the following day. For amongst the genuine outpourings of affection, and expressions of loss, was what's becoming a deeply uncomfortable race to the bottom, with a growing number taking part.

Sadly, many of you will already be well aware where this is heading.

I'm talking about a trend that's repeating itself whenever someone famous passes away, and it's one that's almost unique to big news websites. Namely: how can they turn the death of someone famous into as many mouse clicks and screen taps as possible? Within hours of Williams' death, the internet was awash with stories examining every possible angle, each vying for your attention. There's something deeply unsettling about it, yet it now appears to be The Way Things Are Done.

It's not lost on many of us that the major names in reporting are leading the charge. And it's a shame, because if you look deeper online, and you'll find a host of websites with deeply affectionate tributes. That was certainly the case with Robin Williams' death last week, where there were some genuinely moving articles posted.

Still, even a decade ago, the loss of somebody well-known would, at worst, generally result in people putting together tribute lists and features. I've never been entirely comfortable with those, but I can see that the majority are done with genuine intentions, rather than being about garnering clicks for a website.

What this piece is about, however, is a call for change, however futile it may be. Hadley Freeman, writing in The Guardian, put together a piece entitled 'How To Cover Celebrity Deaths: the new rules' earlier in the year, and I found myself reading it and nodding as I did so.

She wrote it partly in response to Mail Online - the world's most popular newspaper website, attracting over 100 million users a month - which had posted a video of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's partner in the days after his sudden death, as she tried to organise his funeral. But Freeman also makes valid points about the way columnists and fashion writers also make clickbait out of a high-profile death.

The reporting of Robin Williams' passing, however, seemed to excavate new depths. Within hours of the news breaking, once-respected names were falling over themselves to come up with appropriate clickbait. These are all legitimate screenshots taken just hours after news of Williams' death was reported: 

It beggars belief that one of the first thoughts following news of Williams' death would be over the status of Mrs Doubtfire 2, but Variety - once the premier name in film reporting, and a brand that's supposedly meant to stand for something - took mere hours to get on the story. Variety is supposed to be the kind of film outlet we all look up to. Not last Tuesday, it wasn't.

It seems a whole bunch of reporters couldn't get to Twitter quickly enough either, to amalgamate stories such as 'Celebs shocked, devastated'. As for Mail Online urging us not to miss the story of Williams' "utterly heartbroken wife"? I don't know where to start.

I'll spare you the reposting of Wednesday's tabloid headlines. Chances are you know what they are already.

To put this into context: a man, who had been suffering (and that's exactly the word) from depression, one of the least understood illnesses on the planet, took his own life. He was 63, was survived by a wife and three children, all of whom were left trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. They were greeted by stories looking at any possible angle from which to get traffic to a website.

The widely-tweeted screenshot that seemed to encapsulate everything that was wrong, though, was this one. This was from ABC, a Disney-owned company and one of the major television networks in the US.

To be clear: inside that house was a grieving family. Had one of them stepped outside, a live news feed would presumably have zoomed in, so the world could see them at one of the lowest moments of their life. ABC, I should note, has since apologised.

But why do it in the first place? Where is the public interest in that? Where is the humanity in that? This may all sound a bit holier-than-thou and preachy, but seriously: doesn't this have to stop now?

It may also sound idealistic, even a forlorn hope, but surely, asking for reporters to remember we're human beings at such low moments isn't an unreasonable request?

The death of Robin Williams brought out so much warmth and emotion in many people across the world, clearly touched by a man who had, for decades of his life, entertained millions of people in a manner few, if any, of us could. The reporting of his death from many major outlets, though, was absolutely shameful (and not shy of double standards. Nikki Finke penned a long warm obituary to Williams on her site, overlooking the fact that back in September last year, she wrote, "Someone get him back on drugs or alcohol or both").

They'd argue, of course, that if we didn't click on them, then they wouldn't be so popular. And unfortunately, that's absolutely right. The onus, I'd suggest, is on both sides: on the people putting words on the internet, and the people choosing which ones to click on.

It's a plea that likely won't work. I'm not naive. But I do know that Robin Williams' family, and more before and many after, do not deserve a news helicopter hovering above their house in the midst of such a tragic day.

'Competitive Grieving'

While I've got my flame suit on, there's another growing trend when the world loses someone famous, and the best phrase I've heard to describe it is 'competitive grieving'.

Again: I truly believe that the majority of people who posted on social media in response to Williams' death were shocked, moved and upset. Their responses were genuine. But I'd also contend that there's a smaller subset who, whether they see it or not, seem to be engaged in a game of grieving one-upmanship. The worst examples tend to be articles of the ilk of 'the Robin Williams I knew', as invoices are swiftly enclosed alongside articles that claim to have some insight others haven't. Yet it's the trend on social media to try and outdo other grievers, by recounting personal encounters, trying to show how some may be more upset than somebody else, or by in some way quantifying one person's grief as more intense than another's. I find it incredibly uncomfortable.

I'm sparing some of the individual examples I've seen on Twitter over the last week, and in the week after Philip Seymour Hoffman died, so as not to point ire in the direction of a particular individual. But I found no shortage of examples.

People react to bad news in very different ways, and I don't for a minute think to dictate how each of us deals with shocks and tragedies. Conversely, I do think a modicum of respect, and a larger dose of 'being a human being' wouldn't hurt.

It's been a terrible week, particularly for Williams' friends and family. But if we're looking for something even vaguely helpful to come out of the outpouring of warmth of grief, then hopefully, the shaming of some segments of the media, and their dealing with a sensitive issue, will have a positive ramification somewhere along the line. I'm an idealist, granted, but I can't help thinking there really has to be a better way forward.

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