Robin Williams, the coroner and the media
To minimise the risk to vulnerable audiences, coverage of celebrity suicide should be handled with care, says Marc Bryant from the Mindframe National Media Initiative.PT1M44S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3dm3t 620 349 August 13, 2014
- The tweet that went too far
- Robin Williams made two attempts on his life
- News anchor sorry for coward comment
- Family pays tribute
- His unseen movies
- Williams dominates downloads
- Social media backlash
- Best two movies aren't obvious
Amid the pictures and news clips shared about Robin Williams on social media following his death, a wave of criticism emerged after a sheriff's official revealed, in detail, how the actor’s body was found.
At a news conference on Tuesday in the US, Marin County Assistant Deputy Chief Coroner Lieutenant Keith Boyd revealed that Williams, 63, had made two attempts on his life in his final hours.
Too much information? Keith Boyd reveals details of Robin Williams' death. Photo: Reuters
Lt Boyd then went on to reveal what those attempts were and the position in which Williams' body was found.
Fairfax Media has chosen not to publish those details, but many US media outlets have done so.
While the level of detail Lt Boyd presented is routinely available on a coroner’s report for any member of the public to view upon request, it is not often that authorities discuss them in front of cameras and a podium capped with microphones.
Robin Williams: found dead in his bedroom. Photo: Wayne Taylor
The news conference was broadcast on several TV stations and live-tweeted by members of the media, all of which drew the ire of the public.
“I really wish they didn't release the details of how Robin Williams was found. People will be focusing on that, instead of the person he was,” wrote Twitter user Lisa.
Brian White, who identifies himself as a digital and broadcast news reporter in Arizona, said there was nothing to gain from the new information.
“I deliberately didn't have any sound from the Marin County presser because there's no news value in the salacious details of Williams' death,” he tweeted.
Michael van Poppel, who runs a breaking news website, tweeted that Williams’ publicist had no comment to the details revealed in the conference and said describing the actor’s death as a suicide should suffice.
“Shorter sheriff's office press conference: Too much information,” he tweeted.
He then followed that up with: “There's no need to report all the intimate details of Robin Williams' death. Unless there had been doubts, ‘suicide’ is more than enough.”
Lifeline, an Australian charity providing suicide and crisis support services, said it did "not think it is appropriate to be so explicit in reporting a death by suicide", and urged media outlets to be responsible in their coverage.
The organisation acknowledged that Williams' death was newsworthy, and coverage could raise awareness in the community about the need to seek help.
However going into such detail about the circumstances of Williams' death, including the means of his suicide, could have a negative impact on vulnerable members of the community.
Research showed that releasing such detail could increase the likelihood of distressed individuals making similar attempts on their own lives, Lifeline chairman John Brogden said.
“Journalists play a key role in raising awareness of these issues, but stories about suicide in the media can harm or cause distress for some members of the community,” he said.
Writer Mark Masek, who has written about Hollywood deaths and runs a cemetery guide website, suggested that Lt Boyd was releasing details that were inevitably going to come out anyway.
“The public expects it, so the media demands it. Or some sleazy website will pay for it, and others will have to repeat it,” he tweeted.
Lt Boyd did tell reporters that the department was taking precautions to keep other details of Williams’ death private.
The autopsy was performed in Napa County, where a government-run facility operates.
In Marin County, authorities use a private company for its autopsies, Lt Boyd said.
The department chose to go to Napa to ensure no photos or details would be leaked, he said.
Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.
LA Times with Megan Levy