Celebrity deaths: an insensitive media onslaught?

Olivia Webster reflects on the tragic trend of celebrity deaths, what it says about modern culture and media coverage

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In the last cold winter days of 2016, the demonic and cursed year had, in one fell swoop, taken away from us even more beloved celebrities in the form of George Michael, Liz Smith, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. This only adds to the tragic trend that has overshadowed this dragging year where we have seen music, screen and sporting legends pass away. With a pang of pain in their hearts, fans have rushed to their keyboards in the millions to mourn their heroes, creating an overwhelming media outburst focusing on deceased stars.

But each well-meaning tweet of condolence has added to an ever growing anti-2016 culture whereby above all other years, 2016 has been labelled as the worst year in modern history. Yet, while a frenzy of people are rushing to protect David Attenborough, some, like myself, are left pondering what this anti-2016 really says about our society and whether a mass media coverage of celebrity deaths is really the best way forward.

As 2016 drew to a close, a new video about the horror movie-like year seemed to emerge every day, helping people to laugh away the tears before 2017 hit. This being said, last year wasn’t all bad. The media noise from celebrity deaths has hidden some of the year’s brighter elements. There were several health innovations and new developments into prosthetic limbs. Worldwide child mortality is down. Endangered species like tigers have seen rising numbers. Whilst in politics, we now have our first ever Muslim Mayor of London. With these being just a few examples of uplifting events this year, it makes me think that the media coverage filled to the brim with negativity, makes us forget the reasons to smile.

Despite this, it is hard to argue that 2016 on the whole was a great one and I for one will not be trying to take on this tall order. However, while celebrity deaths are tragic, there have been more devastating events to happen this year. Politically, Brexit and its subsequent wave of racism and the election of a rude chauvinist as the future American President, has shocked and devastated people across the world. Things become worse when we cast our eye to war torn or less developed countries where they’ve suffered air strikes, terrorist attacks and horrible diseases. All this leaves me to think that, if we’re going to criticise this year, we should do it for other reasons.

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Nevertheless, there are further unsettling issues with the onslaught of media surrounding celebrity deaths, chiefly, what it says about how we view people and mortality. Why should the death of one person make national news when ‘ordinary’ people die every day? Is there a certain amount of followers someone has to have on twitter before people care? This is probably a result of what I shall call the ‘friend next door’ syndrome. The constant and increasing idealisation of people coupled with the interactivity with their personas via online platforms creates the illusion that we know someone we have never met. I don’t doubt that these icons may have been an important part of our childhood or interests but that doesn’t mean we know them anymore than we do our neighbours. Ultimately, the life of a celebrity shouldn’t hold any more value than anyone else’s.

While you might not have personally known Prince or Bowie, there are people who did. Friends. Family. People who are genuinely grieving for the loss of a daughter, son, mother, father, friend or partner. In their difficult time, they don’t want people staring through the church windows with hash-tagged placards about their beloved; which is the effect social media seems to be creating. But for every article or social media posts celebrating a famous life, there is an article seeking to illuminate their personal life or pry into their deaths. In the last week the stories of George Michael’s philanthropy can be argued as adding a glowing element to his character but the articles alongside picking into the gritty details of his inconclusive post-mortem have a much darker side.

With the idealisation of more people and many coming of an older age, our heroes will continue to pass on. Possibly in numbers as great as this year has seen. But as they do, we should stand by in quiet and respectful condolence; as we would any other person. An over powering media mess that surrounds these deaths is insensitive and ultimately highlights 2016 as being the bad year it was for all the wrong reasons.