Heche’s family revealed that she was brain dead late last week following a car accident on August 5. This prompted some news agencies to report his death, based on a reading of a california law. “An individual who has suffered…irreversible cessation of all functions of the whole brain, including the brainstem, is dead,” the law reads.
But Heche remained on life support for another two days so her organs could be harvested for donation. When Heche’s publicist confirmed that she had been taken off life support late Sunday night, news agencies released a new series of reports reporting her death.
This isn’t the first time a celebrity’s death has been met with public confusion. But Heche’s case was particularly unusual, with the date of death depending on competing definitions of what it means to be dead.
Heche was, by all accounts, in serious condition Friday morning, a week after crash a Mini Cooper into a Los Angeles house, causing the two to catch fire. With no apparent brain activity, she was kept on life support pending an evaluation of her organs.
Nevertheless, TMZ, the entertainment news website that is often first to report celebrity deaths, published a report at 11:19 a.m. L.A. time on Friday. under the title, “Anne Heche dead at 53.” The story noted, “Her rep tells TMZ that Anne is ‘brain dead,’ and under California law, that’s the definition of death.”
People magazine quickly followed with a similar report, as did the LA Times. Both noted in the body of their stories that Heche was legally dead, although her body was still functioning. (The Daily Mail, in an alert carried by Reuters, incorrectly reported that Heche died on Friday after being taken off life support; a Daily Mail spokesperson said the editors had updated his story, but did not issue a correction).
Other news sources clearly made the distinction. The Hollywood Reporter titled his story Friday: “Anne Heche declared brain dead, still on life support following a car accident, the rep says.” The Washington Post did much the same.
Some of the early news reports were aided by statements from members of Heche’s family who declared her dead. News agencies generally rely on family members to confirm the death of a loved one.
“My brother Atlas and I have lost our mom,” Heche’s son, Homer Laffoon, said in a widely circulated statement on Friday. “After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I am left with a deep, wordless sadness…..Rest in Peace Mom, I love you.”
Variety, who noted that Heche was still technically alive, released a statement on Friday that he attributed to Heche’s “family and friends”: “Today we lost a bright light, a caring and very joyful soul, a loving mother and a faithful friend”, read in part. The publication published a follow-up article on Sunday evening reporting that she had been taken off life support, ending all signs of life.
California law and family statements prompted the LA Times to report Heche’s death on Friday, Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning said. She said the newspaper’s reporters had “confirmed” with her family members that she was dead.
But it was not enough for the others. The New York Times said it had suspended publication Heche’s obituary until Sunday when his death was “officially confirmed” and “out of respect for the family”, according to a spokesperson, Naseem Amini.
This left Heche fans and the general public confused over the weekend.
Heche’s Wikipedia page went through a flurry of revisions as users debated his status, changing his death date before deleting it completely at one point. On Monday evening, his entry listed the date of his death only as “August 2022”, with a footnote explaining, “there is some confusion as to the actual date of his death until his certificate of official death be made public”.
Post obituaries editor Adam Bernstein said the newspaper does not recognize brain death as a clear marker of death. He cited the case of Terri Schiavo, who lingered in a vegetative state for seven years as her family engaged in a lengthy legal battle over whether to remove her from a feeding tube. Schiavo’s feeding tube was eventually removed under a court order; she died in 2005.
“It’s black and white. There is no gray area here. If you’re on life support, you’re still alive,” Bernstein said. “Other publications can make up their own minds about when they feel comfortable posting. I’m comfortable when someone is actually dead.
Others also saw it that way, despite family claims and California law. “We chose to wait until she was taken off life support,” said Hollywood Reporter editor Mike Barnes, who wrote hundreds of obituaries for the publication, including Heche’s.
A person close to the Heche family, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations, was sympathetic to reporters. “I don’t think anyone has done anything journalistically or ethically wrong. The family is not mad at anyone,” the person said. “It was a complicated situation when you keep a body alive to harvest the organs. But that was Anne’s wish. It’s part of his legacy.
The rush to publish the news can speak volumes about the value of being the first to report a celebrity’s death in the internet age, Bernstein noted.
Obituaries were once a sleepy corner of daily journalism, but today the death of a prominent figure can generate huge readership. As a result, some news agencies store hundreds of “advanced”– pre-written obituaries of well-known people that can be posted within minutes of a confirmed death.
But some deaths are not deaths at all. There’s a long history of premature reporting on the disappearance of famous people, stretching back decades. The causes range from hoaxesthe accidental posting of anticipated obituaries and inaccurate information, usually from family members, business associates and government officials.
News agencies, for example, prematurely reported the death of rock star Tom Petty in 2017 according to a Los Angeles Police Department source. Actress Tanya Roberts was reported dead a day before he died last year due to misinformation from his publicist, who relied on Robert’s partner. Managers of the “Leave It to Beaver” co-star Tony Dow had to take down a premature Facebook post announcing his death last month after his wife mistakenly told them the gravely ill actor had been pronounced dead. He died a day later.
“You have to be careful of being first but being wrong,” Bernstein said. “If you play it conservatively, you might sacrifice a few clicks, but readers will trust you more in the long run.”