By Riley Dauber
Two celebrity deaths this August caught the attention of the internet and many popular news sources: those of actress Anne Heche and singer Olivia Newton-John.
Despite the celebrities varying levels of popularity, and the fact that they died just days apart – Newton-John on Aug. 8 and Heche on Aug. 12 – the coverage of the women’s deaths were portrayed differently in the news.
The reports’ tones and the way the deaths were presented in the media call into question journalistic ethics and how death, specifically celebrity deaths, should be covered.
For Newton-John, who died of breast cancer, many of the reports detailed her successful singing and acting career. They included quotes from her husband, John Easterling, about respecting the family’s privacy during this time.
“Newton-John, the Australian singer whose breathy voice and wholesome beauty made her one of the biggest pop stars of the ‘70s and charmed generations of viewers in the blockbuster movie ‘Grease,’ died on Monday, according to a statement from her husband. She was 73,” according to CNN.
The article highlights the singer’s successful career and touches briefly on her struggle with breast cancer.
On the other hand, articles about Heche were filled with speculation when it came to her cause of death. On Friday, August 5, the actress crashed a mini cooper into a house; both the car and house caught on fire. Heche was declared brain dead following the crash, and a woman in the house was also injured.
The initial articles published following her death focused on the cause of death instead of Heche’s career or legacy. Although she may not be as much of a household name as Newton-John, that shouldn’t matter.
“Death is the last thing you do generally, and how your death is covered is very much tied up in how your legacy will be remembered after you die,” Associate Professor of English Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor said. “People who write obituaries…will be very mindful of trying to capture the whole range of a person’s life experience, not just what contributed to their death, be it an accident, or some kind of horrible tragedy or cancer.”
Heche’s death caused an influx of gossip in the news, as many wondered if she was intoxicated while driving. The coverage felt like a true crime case, with reporters and gossip sites putting haphazard pieces together to figure out the order of events leading up to her death.
Another misstep in the press was that, following the crash, Heche was hospitalized and considered brain dead for several days, so many news outlets confused her death date. According to reports from The Washington Post, she was kept on life support so her organs could be donated; she was taken off life support two days later, on Sunday, Aug. 14.
But many news outlets reported her death too soon. According to The Washington Post, “Anne Heche died Friday, according to her hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times. Or she died Sunday, per the New York Times and others.”
The confusing timeline and counterintuitive nature of the journalistic coverage exposes the ethical errors in the pieces. Heche’s death should not be treated as a “mystery” to be solved.
Critics latched onto the fact that Heche bought a wig at a wig shop hours before the crash and took a photo with the owner. This information does not have much relevance to her death, and the way the events have been handled leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.
“The biggest factor was the cause. I do think if she had died under different circumstances, or if she had died in a crash that only affected her, it might have been very different, or at least somewhat different,” Dr. O’Connor said.
Dr. O’Connor also said that journalists should not include speculation or anonymous sources when covering celebrity deaths.
“There will be situations like this that [will] occur again. My caution would be to not rely so much on anonymous sources, and not rely so much on trying to speculate for the causes of things and especially when somebody is in a condition that they’re almost definitely not going to recover from,” Dr. O’Connor said. “Think of it more as an obituary situation where you’re trying to draw attention to the person’s achievements.”
Moving forward, celebrity deaths may continue to be covered poorly in the news, but hopefully there will not be a repeat of Heche’s coverage. From the confusion over death dates to scores of speculation, the situation reflected poorly on both the journalists and Heche’s legacy. One fears that she will only be remembered for the crash instead of her successful acting career, where she earned a Primetime Emmy Award for work on soap opera Another World. She later went on to star in crime drama Donnie Brasco and the romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Caption: Actress Anne Heche (center) died in a car crash Aug. 2022, and the way her death was covered in the news was full of mistakes and ethical errors.