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Why the media declared Anne Heche dead twice

Anne Heche died Friday, in accordance with her hometown paper, the LA Times. Or she died Sunday, per the brand new York Times among others.

Between those dates, the 53-year-old actress was in circumstances of mortal ambiguity that challenged the media to parse a legal, even philosophical question: When is someone actually dead?

Heches family disclosed that she was brain dead late the other day following an Aug. 5 motor vehicle accident. That prompted some news organizations to report her death, predicated on a reading of a California law. A person who has sustained irreversible cessation of most functions of the complete brain, like the brain stem, is dead, reads the statute.

But Heche remained on life support for another two days so her organs could possibly be harvested for donation. When Heches publicist confirmed that she have been removed life support late Sunday night, news organizations published a fresh round of news stories reporting her death.

Actress Anne Heche was removed life support on Aug. 14, after she was pronounced brain dead because of severe motor vehicle accident in LA nine days earlier. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Reuters)

Its not the 1st time a celebritys passing was associated with public confusion. But Heches case was particularly unusual, with the date of death influenced by competing definitions of what this means to be dead.

Heche was, by all accounts, in grave condition on Friday morning, weekly after crashing a Mini Cooper right into a LA house, causing both to catch fire. Without apparent brain activity, she was continued life support pending an assessment of her organs.

Nevertheless, TMZ, the entertainment-news website that’s often first to report celebrity deaths, posted a news story at 11: 19 a.m. LA time on Friday beneath the headline, Anne Heche Dead at 53. The story noted, Her rep tells TMZ Anne is brain dead and under California law this is the definition of death.

People magazine soon followed with an identical report, as did the L.A. Times. Both noted in the body of these stories that Heche was legally dead, though her body still functioned. (The Daily Mail, in an alert carried by Reuters, inaccurately reported that Heche had died Friday after being taken off life support; an everyday Mail spokesman said editors updated its story, but didn’t issue a correction).

Other news sources made the distinction get rid of front. The Hollywood Reporter headlined its story on Friday: Anne Heche Declared Brain Dead, Still on Life Support Following MOTOR VEHICLE ACCIDENT, Rep Says. The Washington Post did quite similar.

A few of the early reporting was helped along by statements from Heches family that declared her dead. News organizations typically depend on family to verify a relatives death.

My buddy Atlas and I lost our Mom, Heches son, Homer Laffoon, said in a widely reported statement on Friday. After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I’m left with a deep, wordless sadness….. Rest in peace Mom, I really like you.

Variety, which noted that Heche was still technically alive, published a statement it related to Heches friends and family on Friday: Today we lost a bright light, a sort & most joyful soul, a loving mother, and a loyal friend, it read partly. The publication published a follow-up story Sunday night reporting that she have been removed life support, ending all signs of life.

The California law and the familys statements prompted the L.A. Times to opt for the news headlines of Heches death on Friday, said Hillary Manning, a Times spokeswoman. She said the newspapers reporters confirmed with family that she had died.

But that wasnt sufficient for others. THE BRAND NEW York Times said it held off publishing Heches obituary until Sunday when her death was officially confirmed and out of respect for the household, in accordance with a spokeswoman, Naseem Amini.

That left Heches fans and everyone in confusion on the weekend.

Heches Wikipedia page underwent a flurry of revisions as users debated her status, changing her death date before deleting it altogether at one point. By Monday night, her entry listed the date of her death only as August 2022, with a footnote explaining, there’s some confusion in regards to what her date of death is really until her official death certificate is manufactured public.

The Posts obituaries editor, Adam Bernstein, said the newspaper doesnt recognize brain death as an obvious marker of death. He cited the case of Terri Schiavo, who lingered in a vegetative state for seven years as her family engaged in an extended legal battle over whether to eliminate her from the feeding tube. Schiavos feeding tube was eventually removed under a court order; she died in 2005.

Its monochrome. Theres no gray area here. If youre on life support, youre still alive, Bernstein said. Other publications could make their very own judgment about when theyre comfortable publishing. Im comfortable when someone is in fact dead.

Others saw it this way, too, regardless of the familys statements and California law. We thought we would wait until she was removed life support, said Mike Barnes, senior editor of the Hollywood Reporter, who has written a huge selection of obits for the publication, including Heches.

An individual near to the Heche family, who spoke on the health of anonymity to spell it out sensitive conversations, was sympathetic to the reporters. I dont think anyone did anything journalistically or ethically wrong. The household isnt angry at anyone, said this person. It had been an elaborate situation when youre keeping a body alive to harvest the organs. But that has been Annes wish. Its section of her legacy.

The rush to create the news headlines may tell a more substantial story concerning the value to be first to report a celebritys death in the web age, noted Bernstein.

Obituaries were once a sleepy corner of daily journalism, but nowadays the death of a prominent figure can generate huge flows of readers. Because of this, some news organizations stockpile a huge selection of advancers pre-written obits on well-known individuals who could be published within a few minutes of a confirmed death.

However, many deaths arent deaths at all. Theres an extended history of premature reporting concerning the demise of celebrities, stretching back decades. The complexities range between hoaxes, accidental publication of advance obits and inaccurate information, typically from family, business associates and government officials.

News organizations, for instance, prematurely reported the death of rock star Tom Petty in 2017 predicated on a source in the LA Police Department. Actress Tanya Roberts was reported dead each day before she died this past year because of misinformation from her publicist, who relied on Roberts partner. Managers for Leave It to Beaver co-star Tony Dow had to withdraw a premature Facebook post announcing his death last month after his wife mistakenly told them the gravely ill actor have been declared dead. He died the next day.

You need to be on guard about being first but being wrong, said Bernstein. In the event that you play it conservatively, you may sacrifice several clicks, but readers will trust you more over time.

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