UK press coverage of the death of Robin Williams

THIS is a very quick blog post about press coverage of the death of Robin Williams.

Apologies if I do not tease out every argument, but I am up to my eyes in another project, about ethical codes of reporting as it happens.

TRIGGER WARNING – I am going to write here about the apparent suicide of Robin Williams and in as vague terms as I can about the method he used. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please consider whether you want to read any further. The Samaritans in the UK can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90.

Many people have objected on social media to the way the tabloid press in particular covered the death of Robin Williams. They complaints that I have seen focus on the amount of detail included about how he took his own life and the intrusive and insensitive nature of the coverage.

I will deal with those issues separately.

Firstly, the amount of detail in the reports.

There were four elements to this as I see it:

*He hanged himself

*He used a belt

*He was found seated

*He had also slashed his wrists using a pocketknife

The Editors’ Code of the Press Complaints Commission was amended to reflect concerns about the reporting of suicide, with the insertion of Clause 5(2)

*ii) When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.

The PCC Codebook, which elaborates on the code expands on this. Excessive detail, it is feared, can lead to copying by others who read about the method used.

Examples of excessive detail include the amount and type of a prescription drug used; the way in which a chainsaw was set up by one person to kill himself and the manner another set up equipment to electrocute himself. The publications that included these details were all censured by the PCC.

So were the details included by the papers excessive?

That he hanged himself using a belt, and that he slashed his wrists are, in my opinion, not excessive. These are very common methods people use to take, or make attempts on, their own life.

The one detail I am troubled by is that he was found in a seated position. This indicates how he hanged himself. I am not sure it amounts to excessive in the way the cases above do and doubt that it will amount to a breach of the code. However, if I had been editing that story, I would have taken out that detail in particular.

On then to the sensitivity of the way in which the star’s death was reported.

This is a very complex issue. People sometimes criticise the tabloid press for reporting an issue, while still reading every word of the content. Conversely, sometimes criticism is levelled at the papers for a ‘sensational’ (ie attention-grabbing) front page – and the nuances of coverage inside might be overlooked.

Some people feel that any examination of the lives of the dead while their families are still grieving is an unjustifiable intrusion . At the opposite end of the spectrum, some believe that after a life lived in the limelight, the death of a celebrity is public property too. A reasonable path lies somewhere between those two extremes.

Robin Williams had a long, interesting career as a comedian and actor. He has millions of fans worldwide and his untimely death will be the subject of much conversation and, yes, speculation among those fans. It is, I think, unrealistic to expect the media not to reflect that shock, and to examine the circumstances surrounding his death.

Furthermore, any coverage in the UK ought to be seen in the context of US coverage, where, as the family were appealing for time to grieve, US TV was running live helicopter shots of Williams’ home. The fact that one country’s media is more excessive than our own does not excuse bad behaviour, of course, but the coverage here and its potential impact on those grieving should be viewed in that context.

It is interesting to note that the one media that seems to have caused greatest distress in the immediate aftermath of Robin Williams’ death is social media, in particular Twitter, where trolls attacked his daughter, Zelda, causing her to close her account.

Still, that social media sometimes behaves more distressingly than mainstream, is nothing new.

I think what does, to some extent, excuse the coverage is that much of it was already in the public domain from previous coverage, or else was being widely published and discussed in US media.

I think that many of the complaints were about matters of taste and there the Editors’ Code does not go. No ethical code can take account of matters of taste, which are an editor’s discretion.

I know many will not agree with my views, and many were upset by the UK coverage.

If that is the case make your feelings know to the editors concerned; don’t buy their papers; don’t click their websites. If enough of you out there make your point that way, behaviours might change.

As I tweeted during the furore after his death, newspapers are a daily democracy, fighting for your money at the newsagent and your clicks on their websites. Use your vote wisely.

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