How much do you want to know about how Robin Williams died? How much do you need to know about it? What should you know about it? When does releasing the details of a death, even a celebrity's death, threaten to breach the boundaries of decency, violate privacy and even pose a public health risk?
I ask because of the reaction in the KQED newsroom Tuesday as Lt. Keith Boyd, Marin County's assistant chief deputy coroner, delivered his description of Williams' death in a nationally televised press conference. Boyd disclosed that Williams' body was discovered in a bedroom of his Tiburon home by his personal assistant late Monday morning. Then he offered some explicit details about the condition of Williams' body when it was found:
... Mr. Williams [was] clothed in a seated position, unresponsive, and with a belt secured around his neck with the other end of the belt wedged between the closed closet door and door frame. His right shoulder area was touching the door with his body was perpendicular to the door and slightly suspended.
Mr. Williams was cool to the touch with rigor mortis present in all of his extremities and livor mortis positioned appropriately for the position he was located in. ...
After Boyd read his statement, some here in the newsroom (and far beyond, to judge from comments on Twitter) said they were disturbed, even shocked, to hear the graphic description of Wiliams' postmortem physical condition. The general feeling from the comments I heard was that publicizing the details was a sort of violation. It was an intrusion into a personal tragedy that by right only those closest to the dead should share. And it exposed the awful particulars of the deceased's last moments to a luridly curious media and public. Some raised the possibility that disclosing details of the death scene might lead to copycat suicides.
On the other side, a few folks said, first, that the information the coroner provided would come out in any case, and second, that the Marin County authorities might be trying to head off the inevitable sensational speculation about the circumstances of Williams' death.
I called Boyd Wednesday to ask what factors guided the decision by the sheriff's office to include what some have deemed graphic details of Williams' death. His answer was simple: "We are just following the law." The law in question is the California Public Records Act, which requires local agencies to disclose most of the records they keep, including coroner's records (One significant exception is photographs. It takes a court order to get pictures that medical examiners may have taken as part of their postmortem investigations).
I asked Boyd whether the details released Tuesday would be disclosed in any case his office handled. "Mr. Williams' case is not like any other case," Boyd said. "I wouldn't have gotten the PRA requests I've gotten for this case."
You can thank us, the media pursuing the public's right to know, for all those requests. And you can thank us in advance, too, for the further details on Williams' death that will emerge as the coroner's office completes its forensic investigation. Among other things, media organizations have already requested recordings and transcripts of the 911 call that alerted authorities to Williams' death late Monday morning.
For my part, I do indeed believe in the public's right to know. I think in general we're a little too ready to protect our audiences from what we judge to be the unpleasant details of the violence in which our culture sometimes seems to be immersed, whether that violence be our wars, violent crime or, yes, suicide. I believe in the value of the public discussion that may follow full and honest disclosure, even disclosure of someone else's awful personal tragedy.
But how we handle such disclosures can make all the difference. It's long been accepted among suicide researchers and social scientists that copycat suicides are a real thing. There's a growing body of evidence that media reporting on suicides can prompt more suicides. One recent study looked at what happened when media reported on a novel method of suicide in Taiwan in the late 1990s: asphyxiation brought about by lighting a charcoal fire indoors. The findings suggest that intense media attention on such episodes triggered an immediate spike in similar suicide attempts. By 2010, "charcoal burning suicide" had became the second most common method of taking one's life in Taiwan (after hanging).
In response to growing attention to news media's potential role in sparking copycat suicide episodes, suicide researchers, mental health experts and media partners have come up with a set of guidelines on how to treat the subject: Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.
The recommendations seek to get media to emphasize the mental health and public health implications of suicide and to remove sensationalism from suicide coverage. For instance.
Instead of this: Big or sensationalistic headlines, or prominent placement (e.g., “Kurt Cobain Used Shotgun to Commit Suicide”), do this: Inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide and minimize prominence (e.g., “Kurt Cobain Dead at 27”).
The specific mention of Kurt Cobain in the recommendations is kind of interesting. Cobain, the guitarist/singer/songwriter for Seattle's Nirvana, used a shotgun to kill himself in 1994. David A. Jobes, a prominent suicide researcher, studied Cobain's death and the popular reaction to it. As recounted by Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross in the Seattle Weekly earlier this year, the aftermath was different from what Jobes anticipated:
[Jobes] was actually attending an international convention of suicide researchers that week; he heard the news sitting in a bar discussing trends in the field when a breaking news report came across the television in the background. “It was the headline story,” Jobes told me, “and I was with a guy from the CDC, and our jaws just dropped. ‘This is going to be bad,’ we said. We thought there was going to be an epidemic.”
Jobes’ extensive study found the opposite occurred. The paper he published speculates several reasons: “The lack of an apparent copycat effect in Seattle may be due to various aspects of the media coverage, the method used in Cobain’s suicide, and the crisis center and community outreach interventions that occurred.” Jobes says another key was outreach by the medical community in the previous year to establish a protocol for suicide coverage, urging media outlets to include suicide resources in their reports. Kurt’s death “was the first time where articles appeared with little boxes that listed hotline numbers, signs of depression, and places to get help,” Jobes said. He says Kurt’s death was something of an “outlier of a celebrity suicide in that it arguably led to reporting that did some good.”
So, that's the challenge -- "reporting that will do some good," despite the distressing details. One gesture in that direction, as mentioned by one of my colleagues: recognition that suicide is a national public health crisis.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39,518 people took their lives in the United States in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. That's a toll 2½ times the number of homicides during the same year.
As stark as that number seems — nearly 109 suicides per day, on average, with the nationwide incidence of suicide growing each year — it conceals the actual dimensions of the crisis. The CDC also estimates that in 2010, there were 25 attempted suicides for every one that succeeded -- 1 million attempts all across the United States in a single year. Two million people said they had made plans to kill themselves. Eight million said they had experienced suicidal thoughts.
It's natural to look for a message in Robin Williams' suicide. I'm not sure there is one beyond the staggering realization that even those who look like they have everything can experience such blinding despair that they are driven to take their own lives.
The message in the larger context: Realize the dimensions of the crisis that's taking so many lives, and pay attention and be ready to help those in your life when they tell you they're in crisis.