Newspaper portrayals of celebrity suicide: Examining coverage of Robin Williams

The suicide of Robin Williams shocked his fans around the world. His depression and history of addiction, though not uncommon to celebrity biopics or news of suicide, did not pair with the Williams we thought we knew. We have a relationship with Williams through the characters he portrayed in film, from the Genie in Aladdin to a man who literally healed through humor in Patch Adams. Though roles for an actor, they become a public persona – one that we don’t associate with depression and suicide.

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icaPresented May 23, 2015 at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, San Juan, P.R., Journalism Studies division. Information about accessing this paper and associated materials available here, or by visiting the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

The suicide of Robin Williams shocked his fans around the world. His depression and history of addiction, though not uncommon to celebrity biopics or news of suicide, did not pair with the Williams we thought we knew. We have a relationship with Williams through the characters he portrayed in film, from the Genie in Aladdin to a man who literally healed through humor in Patch Adams. Though roles for an actor, they become a public persona – one that we don’t associate with depression and suicide.

Research on media coverage of suicide mostly deals with the risk of imitation, what has been referred to as the Werther effect. Celebrity suicide, in particular, increases the amount and prominence of coverage, and the parasocial relationships fans have with those celebrities might exacerbate imitation.

Numerous advocacy organizations issue guidelines for journalists covering suicides, suggesting that the content of the story, and not simply the subject, may be at fault. However, this assumption turns out to be woefully under-investigated. What we do know is that media –both in news and entertainment – have a less than stellar track record of accurately representing people with mental illnesses. They are depicted as being disproportionately dangerous, and their identity is rarely examined beyond their illness.

The Williams suicide presented a unique case study to look at how the story of a prominent celebrity suicide was told through the media. This particular study considered coverage from the 20 highest circulation newspapers in the U.S., including tabloids, over the week immediately following Williams’ death. It looked at the types of sources and content used in articles, as well as how prominent those articles were in the newspaper. Findings were then compared to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for reporting on suicide and existing literature on media stigmatization of mental illness.

The degree of detail needed for this type of study required some intensive work on the part of our coders. The team analyzed almost 6,000 individual sentences within 174 stories that cited over 550 sources. If you’re one for reliability statistics and methodology, drop me a line and I’d be glad the details of achieving reliability with so many moving parts.

Among the Findings:

– The suicide was largely told through the lens of Williams’ celebrity – his career and reaction from fellow movie stars – rather than focusing on issues of mental health.

– Coverage became less celebrity-oriented as time passed, but the frequency and prominence of articles also declined considerably, meaning that while coverage became more substantive, it also became harder to find.

– While medical experts weren’t widely cited, they were relied upon for most health-related information. Only twice was sourcing problematic. Medical sources were lacking in articles regarding addiction and speculating as to possible reasons for suicide.

– Tabloids were behind most WHO guidelines violations. They were far more likely than traditional newspapers to speculate about external “triggers” for the suicide. These “reasons” were almost always attributed to celebrities or friends of Williams, oftentimes anonymously. Tabloids also described the suicide in the most graphic detail – something that, aside from taste, is thought to increase imitation. This New York Daily News cover pretty well sums up the problems with tabloid coverage:

hanged

Overall, print coverage of the suicide departed from stigmatizing presentations. As a result of Williams’ stature, he was not a faceless victim; rather, his identity was explored rather deeply. Aside from the tabloids, attempts to link the suicide to some “trigger” event were rare, and suicide as a form of escape was not promoted, despite that message being circulated by some very prominent sources. Most impressively, the stigma that people with mental illness were dangerous did not appear a single time in almost 6,000 sentences analyzed. This was especially surprising when drugs and alcohol entered the discussion.

However, there was still room for improvement. It took time for a medical angle to emerge and for medical experts to appear as sources. That leaves room for unwarranted speculation in the immediate aftermath, when audience attention is at its highest. Print coverage also appeared to miss an opportunity to talk about depression, addiction, and suicide in a more general context. Such extrapolation was isolated.

The real question is whether coverage was unique to the uniqueness of its subject. Is the press getting better at explaining mental illness, or was coverage more delicate because of the beloved actor who made us all laugh? Future research will tell us more, though we hope it is a long time before a context for investigation presents itself again.

This research was conducted by the University of Alabama Health Communication Lab, a part of the College of Communication and Information Sciences. McLemore served as the lead researcher for this study.

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