The media capitalize on scandal. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent drug overdose was still feeding stories ten days after his death. Comedian Sid Caesar passed away another ten days later, and again the media had the opportunity to report on drugs: Caesar was an addict in his thirties. But for stars such as Caesar, Shirley Temple Black and Pete Seeger (two more celebrities who recently passed away), the dark periods of their lives did not overshadow the accomplishments highlighted in their obituaries. Hoffman’s obituary, in contrast, was tainted by the circumstances of his death.
The opening paragraphs of a story are the most important, since nowadays they are often the only part of a story that people read. As a result, the media were in the position to designate the most important aspect of Hoffman’s death, and they chose drugs instead of Hoffman’s accomplishments, which include an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Illustrating the media’s lack of restraint when publicizing scandal, NBC released the contents of Hoffman’s private diary online.
These breaches of privacy that capitalize on scandals attacks not only Hoffman’s legacy, but his surviving family members as they grieve. Private information about him, his children and his longtime girlfriend and mother of his children is not the public’s business. In fact, Twitter users denouced NBC and the police who released the diary by using words like “nauseatingly intrusive,” “tacky” and “despicable,” according to an Los Angeles Times article.
Seeger, Temple Black and Caesar’s deaths did not need scandal to be newsworthy, even though their renown is fading. They merited significant media coverage simply because of their celebrity status, and even more so because they made positive contributions to the world.
When covering a celebrity death, news outlets must consider what interests their audience, what captures attention and makes a story unique. There is a fine line between reporting the news and dragging out a scandal. It is newsworthy that Hoffman died of a drug overdose since he died young and unexpectedly. However, the media portrayed drugs as a side-note to Caesar’s life, with his comedy as its defining feature. With Hoffman’s impressive list of accomplishments, his acting should have been the put first as well.
Seeger’s life was celebrated with a two-page spread in The New York Times. The Times articles, as well as numerous others by outlets including NPR, CNN and the Huffington Post, were complimentary of a life that lent momentum and a voice to activism from the ’40s right up to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. It is not that Seeger’s life was without any scandalous features – he was a Communist in the ’40s and was indicted for contempt of Congress, according to The Times article. That being said, the scandals in his life were recalled without tainting the message that a person who made a positive contribution to the world had died.
It seems that drug use permits an override of respect for the dead. The cause of Hoffman’s death was not immediately verified, but the evidence that he was found with a syringe in his arm and heroin in his apartment was enough to let loose a flood of coverage prefaced with the phrase “drug overdose.” Again, the media outlets reported on a life lost, this time weaving the stories with details about an ongoing struggle with addiction.
Weighed against his exceptional life and career, the circumstances of Hoffman’s death merely provide shock value and are otherwise unimportant. His name merits headlines whether he overdosed or not. His life was worthy of celebration and his memory deserves more than a drug scandal.