In a provocative article introducing the â€œmedia and deathâ€ themed-issue of Mortality
eleven years ago, British scholars David Field and Tony Walter (2003) wrote, â€œOne of the ways in which members of contemporary â€˜modernâ€™ and â€˜post modernâ€™ 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 widowâ€™s private emotionsâ€¦.
While medicine has largely taken over from religion in the practical management of death it does not purport to interpret deathâ€™s meaning. But the mass media, it may be argued, do precisely this. It is the mass media, not medicine, that have inherited religionâ€™s mantle as the interpreter of death in contemporary modern societiesâ€
(p. 1, emphasis added).
Field & Walterâ€™s note that media has â€œinherited religionâ€™s mantle as the interpreter of death in contemporary modern societiesâ€
is fascinating. If their thesis is trueâ€”and I believe that it isâ€”then people supporting the dying and bereaved have an extraordinary challenge. In a recent â€œstraw pollâ€ of my pre-med students, only about 30% indicated they had experienced a close family memberâ€™s or friendâ€™s death and only four out of more than 50 had actually been present as a person died. Every student, however, could recount multiple recent examples of deaths (mostly homicides) on television or in internet news coverage and had no difficulty listing popular TV shows with crime investigation as a major theme. 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 â€œtoo much?â€ How do we balance the â€œright to knowâ€ with rights to privacy and how do we determine what images are too grotesque to show to â€œinquiring minds?â€ 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? Have we lulled ourselves into expecting â€œquick resolutionâ€
â€”whether it is a 12-second news â€œsound biteâ€ or a 60-minute television crime drama? Even when a situation comedy star encounters a significant loss as the Taylor family did when Jillâ€™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 â€œnasty emotionsâ€ of grief.
One study pointed to the nature of television to portray â€œhappy endingsâ€ 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, â€œSurvival 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 â€œmiracle rescuesâ€ 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).
Practitioners in bereavement care frequently refer to our society as one that is alternately â€œdeath-denyingâ€ or â€œdeath-avoiding.â€ Perhaps another term should be used: we appear to have become a â€œdeath-tamingâ€
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? And 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? (Johnston, 2005)
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 (thatâ€™s me) itâ€™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 opportunitiesâ€”at least if you do 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, â€œIâ€™ve been thinking lately about how the media handles death. So how accurately did you think they got the death scene in that movie?â€ In the aftermath of a celebrity funeral or other newsworthy death event, ask your friends and family, â€œSo how does that hit you?â€ 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-since resolved.
As counselors and caregivers of the bereaved, we have a vital role in educatingâ€”and re-educatingâ€”the public with whom we work. When we point out to friends and family that â€œgrief isnâ€™t done in an hourâ€ and â€œmost people donâ€™t die that
way,â€ we provide important facts for people who work with death far less often than do most readers of GriefPerspectives
. 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
Diem, S.J., Lantos, J.D., & Tulsky, J.A. (1996). Cardiopulmonary resuscitation on television: Miracles and misinformation. New England Journal of Medicine, 334
Field, D. & Walter, T. (2003). Death and the media: Introduction. Mortality, 8
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
Johnston, B. (2005). How does the media portray cancer? International Journal of Palliative Nursing, 11
William G. (Bill) Hoy is an educator, counselor and author who has specialized in end-of-life and bereavement care for nearly 30 years. Dr. Hoyâ€™s passion is equipping the next generation of physicians and other healthcare professionals through his research, writing and teaching responsibilities on the clinical faculty in Medical Humanities at Baylor University. His newest book is Do Funerals Matter? The Purposes and Practices of Death Rituals in Global Perspective