Imagine this: You are in a classroom. It is buzzing with all the midmorning energy of your fellow 13-year-olds. Outside, New York City is framed by a clear blue sky, teasing the approach of summer.
As young people do, you open social media between classes and see this trending headline: “Fashion designer dead by hanging in apparent suicide at Upper East Side home."
Beneath the headline is a photo of that designer.
She is your mother.
Celebrities are people. We forget that.
I ask you to imagine how this might have played out only to appeal to your humanity.
Because the Internet did not on Tuesday. It was too busy hyping the news that internationally renowned fashion designer Kate Spade had taken her own life.
This was the first of two, high-profile suicides this week — with news breaking Friday that chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain was found unresponsive in France.
Both were vivacious, unique artists who had an ability to share beauty with people all around the world.
Spade was the creative mind behind the famous, eponymous brand. Bourdain was a storyteller who conjured from food and travel an essence of what it is to be human.
But they were more than famous names. They were people.
People with colleagues, friends and families. They had partners. They had children
The media didn't handle Spade's suicide gracefully
News media doesn’t cover most suicides, but when they do, it is an issue to be handled with care.
Unfortunately, headlines about Spade were sensational, the details gossipy and the vibe pure celebrity. On Wednesday, Kate’s husband, Andy Spade, revealed that he had yet to see the final note that some organizations had already included in their coverage.
“I … am appalled that a private message to my daughter has been so heartlessly shared with the media. My main concern is Bea and protecting her privacy as she deals with the unimaginable grief of losing her mother.”
In the hour following Spade’s passing, news quickly circulated of her death and the internet stories spilled sordid details in headlines:
“Suffering from Depression, Kate Spade Hangs Herself With a Red Scarf”
“Kate Spade's family reportedly 'disgusted' with designer's sister who says suicide 'wasn't unexpected'”
“Kate Spade reportedly addressed a suicide note to her daughter”
The Kate Spade that reporters described was a luminary whose signature line was sleek and colorful. Her handbags, shoes and accessories were original, and the minimalist Spade logo was a symbol of fun sophistication recognized around the world.
While she stepped back from her company in 2007, the style she established expanded into every area of design, from clothing to home goods.
Even for those who knew her solely by her celebrity and her brand, the sorrow and shock of an apparent suicide was palpable. So think of the emotions of family and friends, the people who knew and loved her, as they processed the same news.
Not all reporters were obsessed with the breathless details. Some on social media shared the news of Spade’s passing with a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
But too many news organizations were front-loading tasteless details in a naked play for page views and audience.
The news media does and should demand details. They are fundamental to reporting. But there are times when details must be measured against decency. When a person has died by suicide, it is wrong to headline the tawdry details of how it was done.
It's excessive and cold, if not downright dangerous.
Media must balance details with decency
According to a study published by the scientific journal PLOS One, the U.S. suicide rate rose nearly 10% in the months following comedian Robin Williams’ death in 2014. Likewise, after the suicides of Spade and Bourdain — and their respective media coverage — this week, they have led to an uptick of 25% to 30% in inquiries to crisis lifelines and text services from those who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. While there is no way to tell for sure if the spike correlates, studies have warned about the role media plays in covering and depicting suicide, due to risk of inspiring copycat behavior.
For this reason, Netflix announced in March 2018 it would be including a “warning video” before its series, 13 Reasons Why – a show criticized for its portrayal of suicide, rape and other sensitive topics.
This is not to say the media should avoid such subjects — quite the opposite. But suicide is a public-health issue and therefore the media have a duty to responsibly and tastefully report the news.
After Williams died, for example, several media companies behaved shamelessly and were compelled to issue apologies for their behavior. Most notable was ABC News, which sent a helicopter to film live shots over the family’s home.
What purpose is there in stationing live-cameras outside the house of a person who took his own life?
Similarly, what purpose is served by instantly publishing, “designer found hanging by a red scarf tied to the bedroom door”? Really, there is none, other than capitalizing on the abruptness and emotional shock of loss.
Instead, we should be doing more of what is happening with the passing of Anthony Bourdain. Rather than sensationalizing the shock, the media is taking a moment to celebrate his illustrious career.
“Anthony Bourdain, Chef And Television Host, Has Died At 61”
“Anthony Bourdain's Meal With Obama Was a Proud American Moment”
"Anthony Bourdain mourned by Hollywood: 'He brought the world into our homes'"
In this age of immediacy and furious competition, the media should not lose their compassion and human decency.
We did on the Kate Spade story. We might have improved on the Anthony Bourdain story, but, overall, we should resolve to do better.