How We Write About Death and What We Remember

The day was pretty stale seven hours ago – I was wrapped up some data project work and was studying for an upcoming exam when the news of Chester Bennington’s death broke. It ripped social media networks out of their midday slumber in a startling fit and began to reverberate across the internet. His death was suddenly a top-five item on Google News and the top item on Facebook’s trending topics.

I couldn’t help but feel a slight sense of dread as the word “suicide” began popping  through every headline as reports and words of condolences started slogging down my newsfeed. I’m a little sensitive to the topic, as I assume most people are, because I remember how the death of a student during my sophomore year affected several of my high school friends. The following weeks were filled with a slow pacing anguish mixed with confusion and disbelief. These feelings rock the community every few years, and I learn about the tragedies from my mother who teaches high school math.

Consequently, I can’t help but empathize for those close to Chester and their experience as the news unfolds. I was shocked by the sheer number of publications that went beyond simply headlining his death, deciding instead to expand upon the fact by stating its cause and, at some grotesque times, its method.

I began to reflect back on an interview that touched upon the subject journalistic ethics, respect and responsibility as the episode unfolded, and I decided to examine the issue. I scrapped the subject of “Chester Bennington” at 4:37pm, several hours after reports first surfaced and began to analyze the headlining practices of major publications in response to the tragedy.

I was shocked to find that 62% of headlines stated how he died and further horrified that 10% stated the method of his suicide. These headlines were not isolated to sub-par entertainment publications, but included outlets such as The Washington Post, The Rolling Stone and The Daily Telegraph.

I began thinking more about that interview with Danah Boyd, computer scientist & anthropologist with Microsoft Research, and Ezra Klein of Vox News(1). The internet’s impact on journalism was one of the key topic addressed; Boyd discussed, at length, how the decentralization of reporting has eroded historic ethical controls and standards. The death was always addressed directly but he subject of suicide was never headlined during the golden era of newpaper publications, when they were the gate keepers of information.

Editors exercised tight control over report headlines and refused to emboss the word “suicide” in bold black print due to a mixture of industry taboo, respect for the dead & grieving and consideration for their paper’s reputation. This tight standard began to unravel as newspapers lost control of the market and reporting decentralized through online publications. The subsequent impact was magnified due to the unique features of the internet; You can throw away a newspaper, but online reports don’t go away as easily.

Instead, a simple search for information on the deceased years later will instantaneously bring those original reports back to the forefront, with the ranking of each report depending on the collective interest of millions of people around the world since it’s inception to the time you hit ‘enter’. In this sense, the internet functions as a collective mind, reflecting the best and worst of human nature.

After reviewing the headlining data, I decided to discuss the matter with a friend to decide whether publishing the information would be morally appropriate given the acuteness of tragedy. He recommended that I conduct a deeper analysis and broaden my scope to the headlining practices following the deaths of Chris Cornell (2017) and Robin Williams (2014) .

I followed suite and scrapped the first five pages Google New’s archives for the days they died, and saw began to see how the collective mind of the internet shapes over time. The tone of the top archived reports appeared to give way to fond memory for these individuals – a quick glance through the headlines told me that much. The reports we naturally gravitated over time from those days changed from those explicitly stating the fact of death, it’s cause and method, to those cherishing greatest moments and accomplishments of Williams and Cornell.

Direct mentions of death plummeted in the headlines. Mentions of suicide dropped to 35% for Cornell and 14% for Williams; Mentions of the suicide method fell to 4% for Cornell and were entirely absent of Williams.

I guess this is the silver-lining in the data – when a public individual dies, we have a instinctual curiosity to the nature & circumstances of their demise,  but that fascination gives way towards remembrance and cherishing their memory as time fades. Further reflecting on this pattern, it seems like the tag-line “If it bleeds, it leads” is out of step with human behavior. After all, bleeding narratives don’t last. Their initial dominance quickly gives way to articles of fond remembrance that garner views for years to come.

Given the strict dependence of the online journalism’s business model to strong sustained attention, maybe the formal recognition of this human behavior (albeit after deeper analysis and review) could serve as a natural market force that drives our current decentralized journalism back to historic ethical norms and respectful behavior on the subject of suicide.

P.S. Many thanks to Chester for his work and my thoughts go out to his family & friends – his music was continuous repeat when we were just a bunch of young kids learning to skate and getting into trouble. I think he’d appreciate those moments.  I still can’t walk through Chicago’s Lincoln Park without serious Linkin Park nostalgia.


Data Visualizations:

Images show news headline content on respective days of death. “Status” refers to mentions of death in the headline, while “cause” and “method” refer to mentions of suicide and it’s method in the headline.


Code:

Given that it’s a collection of files, they will be published on GitHub and linked to here in the coming days.

 


Notes:

  1. Interview E. Klein & D. Boyd: Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/show/6NOJ6IkTb2GWMj1RpmtnxP) / Apple Podcasts (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ezra-klein-show/id1081584611)

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