The Complex Ethics Of Reporting A Celebrity's Death

PSHembedPhoto: REX USA/Michael G.
Writing up, aggregating, linking out — these and many other terms indicate the equally varied forms and, some might say, bastardizations of journalism that have spawned in the Internet age. When reader access to a source can change in a second and an endless well of information is at any reader or reporter's fingertips, just begging to be sorted, how one balances the pressures of performance against the standard ethics of traditional journalism becomes a paramount question.
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Salon has a great piece on this matter up today, spurred by the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The way in which information spread in this particular case is notable because before the news actually appeared on any news site at all, The Wall Street Journal's Pervaiz Shallwani Tweeted about it. The actual news item soon followed on site, along with information from The New York Times. Salon reports that all this — including the below Tweet by Mr. Shallwani — probably spread across the world before Hoffman's own family knew he had died.
We, too, jumped on the story right away, out of instinct, but also out of a genuine desire to pass on knowledge to an audience we knew would care deeply about the death of such an incredibly respected, influential actor. Links to various sources climbed through different subreddits and straight up the front page. Within the hour, Gawker had a post up on celebrity reactions to Hoffman's death. There are explanations and justifications for all of this, but there is also the threat of a bad taste in the mouth, the constant worry of stepping over the line and capitalizing on tragedy. As Stacia L. Brown's Salon piece notes, the 17 minutes it took for this news to fully break is not long, but "it’s long enough to wonder if it’s worth risking the credibility of a historically reputable print brand just to be first to tweet a celebrity’s death online." She argues that in that tentative period of time, before facts were confirmed and families notified, "we could’ve gone without knowing that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died."
Like a lot of writers and reporters, we find ourselves asking a lot of deep questions about what we do and how we do it in a situation like this. We are afraid to misstep and we don't want to be insensitive; at the same time, our actions are a grain of sand in a multitude of information — information that people are apparently desperate to know. Read Brown's articulate and thoughtful musings on the subject over at Salon, then weigh in: As the target audience, what is the right way for your favorite website and news sources to behave in a time of tragedy?
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