News organizations shouldn’t report the death of a celebrity without doing the due diligence of ensuring proper sourcing, providing context and allowing sufficient time to pass so that the immediate family of the deceased is informed.
An article published last Tuesday on Salon.com recounts the media coverage in the aftermath of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. According to the piece, the first news outlet to report the bad news was the Wall Street Journal, which tweeted an unsourced assertion of the actor’s demise. Soon after, other news outlets reported the story, supplying details about the circumstances of Hoffman’s death and his struggles with addiction.
The article went on to use these events as a case study about the deteriorated ethics of journalism. One of the author’s central concerns was that Hoffman’s immediate family may have found out about his death through the news media instead of privately.
It’s easy to see why news organizations clamour to be the first to report the death of a celebrity. Media companies are on tight budgets and social media ensures a relentless news cycle that journalists have to stay on top of at all times. “If you’re not first, you’re last” is the central operating principle in newsrooms.
While this mentality is a reaction to real circumstances, there’s no reason for every media outlet to join a race to the bottom. Readers expect real reporting with context and proper sourcing from reputable news organizations like the Wall Street Journal — not one-off tweets.
While many people claim emotional connections to Hollywood celebrities, those connections don’t compare to familial bonds. Moreover, a celebrity’s death doesn’t have the same public interest that the death of a politician or other head of state does. This is all the more reason for reporters and editors to take a pause and allow time for families to find out about the deaths of their loved ones before making the news public.
Despite the incredibly competitive state of journalism, certain practices aren’t inevitable. News organizations looking to maintain their credibility should delay reporting on celebrity deaths, as good journalism takes time. It’s a humane alternative to the status quo.
— Journal Editorial Board
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