WHY IS IT that the death of one semi-famous individual such as Anna Nicole Smith can garner so much publicity yet only a few words are allocated to a young man who recently died in a motorcycle crash?
The first, and perhaps most obvious, factor that increases media coverage of a death is if the person who dies is famous. It seems that the deaths of well-known figures are naturally reported, often as a grand finale to the reports of their lives.
The important point to note about celebrity deaths, however, is that the cause of death does not necessarily have to be outrageous in any way. For example, Mother Theresa died simply and of natural causes; she had lived a long and full life. Nevertheless, her death was made known throughout the entire world by the news media.
Many deaths occur in this same manner every day, and they are rarely reported. Thus, if people become interesting in the public eye while they are alive, then their deaths are more likely to also be of interest to the public.
Another factor that makes a personâ€™s death interesting and adds to its newsworthiness is if the person is relatively young when he or she dies. When a person dies at a young age, there is always a sense of lost potential, the idea that had he or she lived longer, he or she would have been able to do great things to benefit the world.
However, according to the World Health Organization, in 2005, an average of 982 people under the age of 54 die each day in the United States, and this is still too many deaths for all of them to be covered. Thus, this factor is most clearly seen when combined with another factor, such as fame; it has the ability to increase the amount of media coverage of a death that is already in the news.
Young celebrity deaths that were covered extensively by the media include those of John F. Kennedy, John Lennon and River Phoenix. These individuals were all talented and their deaths influenced the public by robbing people of their ability to enjoy the benefits of these talents in the future.
Almost all of the deaths of young people that appear in the news involve some sort of immediacy or unexpectedness. After all, one does not often hear in the news of a teenager who has died of cancer. Immediate deaths receive extensive coverage in the news because they are new information. If a person was expected to die at a certain time and in a certain way, then the death would no longer be news to the public.
One significant factor that determines the extent of media coverage post-mortem is the strangeness of the circumstances surrounding the death. It almost seems that death has to be viewed, in terms of established news values, as way out of the ordinary it to be covered. Indeed, as people in todayâ€™s society become more desensitized to violence and death in the news, the more shocking and outrageous the deaths must be in order for people to take notice.
The news media often chooses to report deaths that provide close glimpses of particular victims in order to illustrate national problems, dramatic vignettes that bring home the personal ramifications of the great public issues of the day.
One dramatic example of this was the death of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was murdered because he was gay. In this case, the news media made Shepard into a larger-than-life worldwide symbol of the evils of homophobia. Thus, the news media focuses on just a few deaths that have the potential to arouse sympathy in people, and these sympathetic feelings then cause people to work towards solving the larger societal problems that the deaths represented.
Josef Stalin once said, â€œThe death of a single Russian soldier is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.â€? For tragedy to be given real meaning it needs to have a context â€” it needs to be explained and sometimes, the best way to do that is through the personal story of those people caught up in it.
Although there are limitations on the number of deaths that can be reported, the news media does not come close to that limit. If it did, then it would not be able to offer such deep personal accounts of the lives of the deceased and their survivors.
By the way, that young motorcyclist who I mentioned in the beginning â€” his name was Harsimran Singh and he was 24 years old. He had arrived with his family from India only a few years ago.