Unveiling the Private death of a Public Figure

“But in the end, one needs more courage to live than to kill himself” — Albert Camus

When actor and comedian Robin William’s passed away on August 11, 2014 an immediate investigation begun. Soon, it was confirmed he had committed suicide and was a victim of: depression, anxiety and the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. The Atlantic, The Guardian and CNN covered this singular incident in drastically different ways, through the use of: Agenda Setting, Framing Theory, and reporting approaches. The introductory paragraph of a novel holds great responsibility, as it must grasp the readers attention and set the proper tone for the tale waiting to unfold. Similarly, a news consumer can get a feel for the angle of an article from its first sentence. Through compare-and-contrast methods, focusing predominantly on: the first paragraph, language, metaphor and narrative structure, I observed how the CNN account of William’s death proved most traditional in its reporting style and thus, could be considered most trustworthy.

Extracting the Story-Telling component of Framing Theory

Atlantic contributing writer James Parker presents William’s death in parallel with the concept of grief; an emotion that consumes a leading role he played in the 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire. This account of William’s suicide — embedded within Parker’s movie review — immediately distinguishes itself from other reports in light of its introductory poetic reflection on death. Parker writes, “Death, if we are loved at all in this world, is a centrifuge: at the moment of cessation, it throws our essence outward, and further outward, scattering us abroad with supernatural force and largesse.” Elaborate terms such as ‘centrifuge,’ ‘cessation,’ ‘essence,’ ‘scattering,’ and ‘largesse’ allow this piece to stand out among the more mainstream, direct and simple language affiliated with reporting.

Framing, “the way in which the media don’t just report on the news, but provide ways of looking at events, and thus influence how audiences will understand or evaluate those events,” is employed as Parker introduces Robin William’s death as an incident that brings people together through grief, seen as he notes, “when Robin Williams committed suicide in August, we — humanity, I mean — were globally instant-messaged, a zillion bulletins of illumination.” Here, we see Parker incorporating the story-telling element of framing, as he continues on, “‘Why did he do it?’ asked my son and my three nephews.” Now that Parker has placed himself and his family into the piece, he can bond with his audience in a way that traditional news-reporting prohibits. Thus, eliminating Jay Rosen’s ‘view from nowhere’ idea.

“Framing theory looks at the metaphor, spin and narrative structure” of a news piece. Parker uses Mrs. Doubtfire as a metaphor for William’s passing, most noticeable as he writes, “and only now, I begin to see that Mrs. Doubtfire is the happy-sad performance of Williams’s career, a masterpiece comic turn in which his soulfulness, and his eerie, emptied-out humility are perfectly rationed and combined.” Parker’s response to Mrs. Doubtfire functions as the vehicle that launches a report on William’s suicide, apparent through the notion, “but Mrs. Doubtfire’s secret, the thing that authenticates her, is grief…Robin Williams dies, and we recognize his greatness.” With little investigation into the specific details of the death itself, Parker briefly sheds light on some of the factors leading up to the incident, in reference to a 2010 podcast. Parker writes, “Williams spoke softly and painfully about his difficulties and his addictions. He departed on a long riff in which he and his conscience, in a hotel room, quietly discussed the possibility of suicide.”

Parker doesn’t encourage us to investigate the specifics of William’s passing, rather, through his story-telling and personable narrative structure, invites us to acknowledge William’s acting history and notice the overlap between the character Mrs. Doubtfire in relation to Robin Williams himself.

“The media tell us not how to think, they tell us what to think about”

Guardian contributing writer Dean Burnett uses William’s death as the foundation for his passionate opinion that suicide is not selfish, seen as he skims over the actual death itself and places most of his focus on his own agenda. Burnett writes, “news of Robin Williams’s death due to apparent suicide, said to be a result of suffering severe depression, is terribly sad. But to say taking your own life because of such an illness is a ‘selfish’ act does nothing but insult the deceased.” Within the first line of the piece itself, Burnett can hardly resist disregarding Williams suicide and beginning his lecture, evident through the word ‘but.’ “Despite the tremendous amount of love and admiration for Williams being expressed, there are still those who can’t seem to resist the opportunity to criticize, as they do these days whenever a celebrated or successful person commits suicide.” Through tone and the narrowed focus of the piece, Burnett utilizies agenda setting to guide his readers down his biased path. While the controversial topic of his piece is interesting, Burnett mentions Robin Williams three times and fails to incorporate quotes, research or traces of interviews in regards to Williams suicide. Rather, he vaguely rants about conflicting attitudes toward suicide and depression.

The Value of Cold, Hard Facts

CNN Reporter Matthew Stucker opens his piece with a strong and informative tone, as he writes, “The death of actor and comedian Robin Williams has officially been ruled a suicide, the coroner in Marin County, California, said Friday.” Through steady use of quotes and tight, concise language, Stucker’s piece is rich with specific detail, leaving no room for metaphor or opinion — as was seen through the previous two pieces. “Alcohol and illegal drugs were not involved, the statement from the coroner’s office said…Williams was found dead in his Tiburon, California, home from what investigators suspected was a suicide by hanging. He was 63 years old.” Again, as Stucker shares his knack for straight-forward and confirmed facts, he becomes a trustworthy reporter.

“A cellphone recovered from Williams’ pants pocket was dead. After recharging the phone, the coroner searched through its texts and emails and found no messages referencing suicide, the report said.” Here is another instance in which Stucker’s piece is entirely fact-driven; the type of article someone can read at a quick-pace with little confusion or requirement of energy or interpretation.

So What can We Conclude?

While the comparison between the presence of grief in Mrs. Doubtfire and the element of grief aroused due to William’s death is eccentric and intriguing, Parker places too much emphasis on reviewing the film than the death of the actor, himself. Although it is respectful and valuable to correct the misconception that suicide and depression are selfish, Burnett’s article feels more like an aggressive confrontation than it does an account of William’s death. Despite the fact that Stucker’s piece has little tone, it heavily outlines the investigation of the death in a conventional and forward manner. Stucker’s decision to apply his attention entirely toward providing exact details of the suicide are indicative of his motives. Rather than enforcing agenda-setting tactics in order to tell his reader what to think about, Stucker simply provides them with facts. Similarly, instead of encouraging his audience to look at William’s suicide from a variety of angles, Stucker reports on the death in a very clear-cut fashion. Thus, despite the interesting pieces produced by Parker and Burnett, Stucker’s article is of grander quality because it leaves no trace of bias.

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