Media's Relationship with Death and Bereavement
by William G. Hoy
Seemingly every day, the news and/or entertainment media select death as a theme or at least sub-theme in a story line. Perhaps occasioned by the journalist’s adage of “If it bleeds, it leads,” teaser ads for the 11pm news broadcast throughout “prime time” encourage us to “tune in” to the news program to get the latest updates on a homicide or traffic crash. The proliferation of crime dramas and reality trauma shows on TV make death an ever-present companion in our world. In the first week of my End-of-Life and Bereavement Care course for pre-med students, we always talk about the role of death in the media. A quick Google search provides all the news stories and movie trailers I need to get the conversation rolling.
In a provocative article introducing the “media and death” themed-issue of Mortality 13 years ago, British scholars David Field and Tony Walter (2003) wrote, “One of the ways in which members of contemporary ‘modern’ and ‘post modern’ societies learn about how to understand dying, death and bereavement, and how to behave when they are confronted with these, is through media representations and interpretations of these. It has commonly been argued that death is hidden from public view, and relegated to the private arenas of the side-ward and the widow’s private emotions…. While medicine has largely taken over from religion in the practical management of death it does not purport to interpret death’s meaning. But the mass media, it may be argued, do precisely this. It is the mass media, not medicine, that have inherited religion’s mantle as the interpreter of death in contemporary modern societies” (p. 1, emphasis added).
Field & Walter’s note that media has “inherited religion’s mantle as the interpreter of death in contemporary modern societies” is fascinating. If their thesis is true—and I believe that it is—then people supporting the dying and bereaved have an extraordinary challenge. Most semesters, about a third of my pre-med students indicate they have experienced the death of a close friend or family member and almost none have been present at the death. However all can recall multiple exposures to death in the on TV or internet (mostly homicides) during the preceding week. Clearly, we live in an era when more people are exposed to death through mass media than through personal experience.
Moreover, it is likely that photographic images, film and television entertainment and the news media help to satisfy or in some cases, further traumatize people who are already hurting badly. When is it “too much?” How do we balance the “right to know” with rights to privacy and how do we determine what images are too grotesque to show to “inquiring minds?” These are not easy questions to answer.
Perhaps an even more important question to be contemplated by caregivers of the dying and bereaved is how do the news and entertainment media portray death and bereavement and what influence do those portrayals have on the expectations of the bereaved? See the research study by Lord, et.al. (2016) summarized below in “Research that Matters” for ways this potentially impacts organ donation. Have we lulled ourselves into expecting “quick resolution”—whether it is a 12-second news “sound bite” or a 60-minute television crime drama? Even when a situation comedy star encounters a significant loss as the Taylor family did when Jill’s father died unexpectedly in a 1996 episode of Home Improvement, the grief seems largely resolved within the 30-minute episode and viewers are not often ever bothered again with the “nasty emotions” of grief.
One famous study pointed to the nature of television to portray “happy endings” after cardiopulmonary resuscitation, even though the real-life success rate is not so positive. The study examined the use of CPR on three television programs (ER, Rescue 911 and Chicago Hope.) The authors concluded, “Survival rates for CPR on these television programs were significantly higher than the highest (real life) rates reported in the literature (Diem, Lantos & Tulsky, 1996, p. 1579). The “miracle rescues” of Rescue 911, for example, demonstrated 100% success in field-use of CPR even though the best research indicates less than 30% survival of victims suffering cardiac arrest due to trauma (p. 1581).
Though not an empirical observation, it seems to me that today’s hospital shows do a much better job with the realities of death than their predecessors. In one of my favorites, Chicago Med, four patients died in a single recent episode and an important sub-theme of the show was how one young resident had to learn the process of informing and supporting families as she “called the code” and “pronounced (death).” Nevertheless, the overwhelming model in the entertainment is that if first responders can get to a patient, he or she will survive. Rarely do we see portrayed in the media the long-term disability that is an all-too common outcome.
Practitioners in bereavement care frequently refer to our society as one that is alternately “death-denying” or “death-avoiding.” Perhaps another term should be used: we appear to have become a “death-taming” society where much more emphasis is placed on surviving cancer than dying of it, and those who cause the death of others are quickly brought to justice. When did you last view an episode of Law & Order when the perpetrator was not tried (and sent to prison) within the 60-minute time frame? Most counselors can recount the story of at least one patient who was disappointed at the slow pace of investigating a homicide in the family, unaware that their model for the resolution of such cases is the one-hour episode of a crime drama in which the detectives have nothing to do except work this case.
Though we might see more accurate portrayals today than a decade ago about the possibilities for end-of-life care, when was the last time (if ever) you have seen a portrayal in the entertainment media of the caring hands of hospice staff and volunteers gently guiding a family as they cared for their dying loved one? Though I could certainly have forgotten it now, I cannot recall a single episode of any of my favorite medical shows where a physician led a discussion about hospice because continued treatment simply would make no sense. Instead, the picture of facing even incurable diseases is one of military conquest where even our obituary language belies our attitudes of never stopping treatment: “She lost her battle with cancer” or “He fought valiantly since the diagnosis with Parkinsons.”
Another less-discussed factor is the effect on vulnerable populations when the media reports details of suicide. One recently published study from South Korea showed a sharp increase in suicides after a celebrity suicide. The sharpest increases were seen in suicides by the same method and in the same age cohort as the celebrity, even when controlling for variables. The Korean authors of this research hypothesize that a contributing factor is the far less-restrictive reporting standards for media in their own country than are typically seen in North America and Europe (Ji, Lee, Noh & Yip, 2014)
Undoubtedly, we like happy themes in our media. A standing joke in our family is that for dad (that’s me) it’s a good movie as long as somebody dies! There is no shortage of death themes in the news media, either. The many incidents of death in the media can make for provocative conversation and manifold educational opportunities—at least if one does not mind getting branded as the family death-monger! Seriously, one way we can all engage people in conversation is, when talking with friends about a film or television program, simply say, “I’ve been thinking lately about how the media handles death. So how accurately did you think they got the death scene in that movie?” In the aftermath of a celebrity funeral or other newsworthy death event, ask your friends and family, “So how does that hit you?” One bereavement group leader I know asks her group about the event whenever the media present a high profile death, realizing that a death in the news often triggers the re-visiting of bereavement experiences thought to have been long-sense resolved.
As counselors and caregivers of the bereaved, we have a vital role in educating—and re-educating—the public with whom we work. When we point out to friends and family that “grief isn’t done in an hour” and “most people don’t die that way,” we provide important facts for people who work with death far less often than do most readers of this newsletter. Better understanding of the dying process and far better support of the bereaved are only two of the benefits derived by those to whom we provide care.
Clarke, J.N. (2005-2006). Death under control: The portrayal of death in mass print English language magazines in Canada. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 52 (2), 153-167.
Diem, S.J., Lantos, J.D., & Tulsky, J.A. (1996). Cardiopulmonary resuscitation on television: Miracles and misinformation. New England Journal of Medicine, 334 (24), 1578-1582.
Field, D. & Walter, T. (2003). Death and the media: Introduction. Mortality, 8, 1-4.
Ji, N.J., Lee, W.Y., Noh, M.S., & Yip, P.S.F. (2014). The impact of indiscriminate media coverage of a celebrity suicide on a society with a high suicide rate: Epidemiological findings on copycat suicides from South Korea. Journal of Affective Disorders, 156, 56-61.
The Author: For more than three decades, William G. Hoy has been counseling with the bereaved, supporting the dying and their families, and teaching colleagues how to provide effective care. After a career in congregation, hospice, and educational resource practice, he now holds a full-time teaching appointment as Clinical Professor of Medical Humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
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