The picture painted was gruesome. No detail, it seemed, was spared.
On Monday, Robin Williams’ grieving wife asked for privacy. A day later, the Marin County sheriff’s office revealed graphic facts about the beloved actor’s suicide. Many who watched coverage of the news conference were stunned — and offended — by the level of detail disclosed. Shock turned to anger as the media reported the facts.
Investigators in California said Williams’ death was a suicide by hanging. Officials detailed how he was found dead in a bedroom, clothed, slightly suspended in a seated position with a belt around his neck, with one end of it wedged between a closet door frame.
In California, the information revealed during the news conference is open record. There is a legal obligation to release the findings.
The public outcry doesn’t surprise Craig Harvey, chief coroner investigator with the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner.
“We got the same blowback from Michael Jackson’s death,” he said.
The coroner’s office is a public records office, “so all of that information, as uncomfortable as it might be, is fair game,” he said.
While the public gets protective of well-loved celebrities, providing information to the public “is what we do,” Harvey said.
But what about the media ethics involved?
Al Tompkins, of media watchdog Poynter, said it’s legitimate and defensible for the networks, local TV stations and online sites to carry the news conference live. However, that doesn’t mean journalists need to repeat the graphic details.
“The coroner’s office has an obligation to report what they know,” Tompkins said. “Journalists don’t have the obligation to report that information over and over again in that level of detail.”
Tompkins said he would struggle to defend the deep details of exactly how Williams killed himself. However, he cautioned that that doesn’t mean the details are never crucial. Context is key.
“In Michael Jackson’s case, there was great disagreement over what occurred and how it occurred,” Tompkins said. “Then the details of his death become much more important to understand exactly what happened.”
Tompkins also said the subject of suicide requires particular discretion.
“Suicide experts say graphic details about the exact cause of death — the details of the death particularly when they involve a celebrity — are more likely to have the ‘contagion affect,'” Tompkins said, which can breed copycats.
“Graphic details of the cause of death are not nearly as helpful as a deeper conversation about intervention, depression and the need for mental health care,” he said.
Credit to USAToday