For decades, journalists have been told to exercise extreme discretion when reporting on the topic of suicide. A quick search online turns up dozens of cautionary guidelines when reporting on the topic — everything from “don’t be sensational” to “avoid reporting on the contents of a suicide note.” Striking the right balance between informing the public and showing decorum is tough — enough for many newsrooms to avoid the topic altogether.
But those rules are seemingly thrown out when the story involves a subject in the public eye. Politicians, moguls and celebrities often receive a different treatment than Joe Everyman — and often the coverage brings out the worst in the media.
Monday’s suicide of the late actor Robin Williams proved just how hard it is for news organizations to stay on top of a subject when little information is immediately available — and, in some cases, stories that crossed over ethical boundaries were rightfully met with disgust and contempt from general news consumers around the world.
At the time of his death, Williams appeared in nearly five dozen Hollywood films. Many of his blockbuster movies were filmed in his home community of San Francisco — the day of his death, I wrote that over the past two years, no one single person had done more for the Bay Area as far as the film industry goes than Williams did during his lifetime. Often it seemed Williams would only agree to a role if the studio filmed somewhere in the Bay (and several household titles, such as Mrs. Doubtfire, Flubber, Bicentennial Man and Jack were all filmed in the city or adjacent communities).
As one would expect, San Francisco news organizations reacted by providing near wall-to-wall coverage of their local icon. And as local news organizations that are close to a story often do, they all made some attempt to inject themselves into the story.
During its coverage, KTVU (Channel 2) noted that portions of the movie Mrs. Doubtfire were filmed at its broadcast facility in nearby Oakland — with some scenes shot in the very studio where the anchors were reading the news that evening. KGO-TV (Channel 7) consumer reporter Michael Finney told an off-the-cuff story about attending school with Williams in nearby Marin County, though he admitted he was never close friends with the actor. Later, Finney talked about how Williams was known in his neighborhood for passing out glow sticks and toothbrushes to trick-or-treaters on Halloween night.
For anyone who works in the industry, the benign banter was an obvious display of news talent attempting to fill broadcast time while staying on top of an important story. Attempts by others to draw attention to themselves while reporting on the actor’s suicide were not as subtle, and those stories quickly drew scorn from local news viewers.
Take, for instance, KPIX’s (Channel 5) interview with a fellow CBS employee who claims to have recently attended and alcoholism support group with the late actor. In the story fronted by KPIX reporter Sharon Chin, photojournalist Dean Kendrick described Williams’ demeanor as “very low,” saying the comedian “really, really needed support” when he showed up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting last month in the San Francisco suburb of Mill Valley.
KPIX promoted the story on-air and online, with at least one mention on the station’s Twitter and Facebook profiles. Viewers immediately scorned the report, saying the station had violated the support group’s basic principle of aiding those afflicted with alcoholism through anonymity.
“Articles like this are absolutely shameless,” a KPIX viewer said as noted by the watchdog iMediaEthics. “Everyone in the media seems to want a piece of this man’s death, like vultures picking at a carcass.”
“(Kendrick) is breaking a huge boundary of trust for everyone who goes into an AA meeting,” KPIX viewer Joy Joyner wrote on Facebook. “That’s disgraceful.”
For Alcoholics Anonymous, preserving the anonymity of its members is a basic trust principle for those who have sought help, and is often considered to be an encouraging trait for others who are considering the group. On its website, Alcoholics Anonymous encourages the media to promote counseling services as a way of providing help to those afflicted with substance abuse — in doing so, the group also asks that the press safeguard the identities of those who may be identified, or self-identify, as members of Alcoholics Anonymous:
“We respectfully request that you continue to cooperate with us in maintaining the anonymity of AA members. The principle of anonymity is a basic tenet of our fellowship. Those who are reluctant to seek our help may overcome their fear if they are confident that their anonymity will be respected. In addition, and perhaps less understood, our tradition of anonymity acts as a restraint on AA members, reminding us that we are a program of principles, not personalities, and that no individual AA member may presume to act as a spokesman or leader of our fellowship.”
A public relations official for Alcoholics Anonymous — who, in keeping with the group’s ethos, asked not to be identified publicly — told The Desk by e-mail on Wednesday that the organization does not comment “on media stories, on decisions made or actions taken by media outlets, or on the behavior of any individual.”
KPIX isn’t commenting either. The station’s general manager Bruno Cohen and news director Dan Rosenheim have not yet returned an e-mail from The Desk asking about the report. Tuesday morning, the station removed all references to Alcoholics Anonymous in a web version of the interview, saying Kendrick met the actor at a “support group.” The accompanying video was also removed from the online article, though it is still visible in other places on the website.
The station also attempted to downplay the Alcoholics Anonymous angle on social media posts — KPIX deleted a tweet promoting the story, and edited a Facebook post to say that Williams had spoken openly about his problems with addiction (shortly after The Desk published a story on the controversial report, KPIX deleted the Facebook post altogether).
Some with ties to the station have spoken publicly about the error: At least one anonymous KPIX employee told media columnist Rich Lieberman that the channel made a mistake in not observing “the AA code of honor.” The news director of KCBS-AM — an all-news radio station that is owned by KPIX’s parent company — told Lieberman that his station had stopped running the package during news coverage of the actor’s death.
But KPIX executives have been notably silent on the issue, choosing to sweep their error in judgment under the rug instead of acknowledging their mistake to viewers. The reason? As is usual with event of controversy, the report simply hasn’t generated enough outward media attention for anyone at the top to get publicly involved.
Any news organization with integrity and respect for their audience should acknowledge their mistakes as soon as they become evident, especially when the topic is as polarizing as what to report, or not to report, while covering the suicide of a much-beloved public figure. KPIX should address their error in judgment without provocation — but so far, station executives have expressed no interest in doing so, and viewers would be wise to take note.