Tanya Roberts died on Tuesday, several hours after she was mistakenly declared dead by her publicist and her partner. She was 65.
She had been reported dead on Sunday, but publicist Mike Pingel said that was based on a mistake by her partner Lance O’Brien, who believed Roberts had slipped away during what was expected to be a final visit.
Numerous outlets, including The Associated Press, reported Roberts death Monday, based on information Pingel received from OBrien. He later told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Cedars-Sinai Medical Center reached out to him on Monday at 9:30 p.m. PST to inform him that Roberts had passed away. Roberts’ death was related to a urinary tract infection, Pingel said.
Reportage on Roberts’ demise is probably a lesson in how not to cover celebrity deaths which are often mired in misinformation. So much so that “celebrity death hoax” is an actual term.
In the digital age, it can be quite difficult to segregate the fake news from the real. Very often, reputed media houses too fall prey to false reports in the race to get the news out first.
For instance, in 2018, the Associated Press made an error while reporting the death of Oscar-winning Director Costas Gavras. Their only source was a tweet by a Twitter account seemingly belonging to the Greek Minister of Culture. Turns out, the account was fake and so was the tweet. Gavras was actually very much alive at the time.
In an interview to Mirror, celebrity agent Rob Cooper spoke about how publicists handle breaking news related to their clients’ deaths, weddings and so on. He said that he sympathised with Roberts’ agent, Pingel because this incident will hamper the latter’s relationships with media houses who will be on the receiving end of backlash owing to the misreported news – backlash they do not deserve because they received confirmation from Pingel about Roberts’ passing away.
British journalist Hadley Freedman has one piece of advice for those covering celebrity deaths – do not treat others in a manner you wouldn’t wanted to be treated yourself.
This is actually not the first time famous celebrities have been victims to death hoaxes. The most recent one would be that of rock legend Bob Dylan. Fans were in for a shock when reputed news channels like MSNBC reported that Dylan had died last year. Clearly, he had not. They were forced to issue an apology later.