Current Events

The End of the Road: Digital Mourning in 2012

At the Houston Press office, I am usually the first person who finds out when a celebrity or musician dies, usually from a wire or, these days, the fine folks at TMZ. Hell, sometimes even when I am away from my desk I have to be the bearer of bad tidings, like when Adam Yauch passed on a few weeks ago. The "Breaking News" alert app on my phone brings me a lot of bad news, even on the toilet in a hotel in New Orleans.

In the office, I usually take out my earbuds and say, "So-and-So just died," wait for a somber response or a sad groan, and put my buds back in and attempt to get the ball rolling on a blog. When Michael Jackson's last day unfolded, I gave everyone here the play-by-play sequence that went from home to hospital to morgue.

Blame it on my needle-to-the vein addiction to social media and my undying allegiance to being "the first." It's in the job description, I suppose.

But here in the social-media age, the phenomenon of digital mourning brings new facets to a well-known person's death, things that didn't exist a decade or so ago. A mass of eulogies comes almost immediately, from a variety of news outlets, all saying wonderful things, glossing over the shitty albums, the arrests, the drugs.

The story is now steered not by the journalists, though, but by the common people. They take the news where they want it to go.

Most times if we know that you are dying or living life on the edge, we journalists write copy celebrating your existence on Earth before you are even pronounced dead. The New York Times writer who wrote a flowery obituary for actress Elizabeth Taylor died six years before she did.

Then fellow celebrities begin weighing in, offering heartfelt messages of love that their PR people type for them or they dictate. Even if you didn't know the dead person beyond a handshake at an industry mixer, you say that you had a warm rapport with the stiff. Maybe that you wanted to collaborate one day. Mostly lies.

When Amy Winehouse died last year, even the dude from 311 had something to say.

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Craig Hlavaty
Contact: Craig Hlavaty