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The year of the RIP: Is 2016 really taking away our most loved stars?

Or are we just obsessed with celebrity?

David Bowie nominated for music award The death of David Bowie in January set a trend for the media's response to death in 2016. Source: Yui Mok

IT SEEMS ONE of these things is true: either 2016 is a really unlucky year for celebrity deaths or there are just more famous people to die.

But what if it’s more complicated than that?

Either way, the idea seems to have taken hold that some of our best loved artists are passing away on an almost weekly basis.

Certainly, the death of David Bowie in January led to a collective public mourning that befit his enormous cultural influence. But did the sadness people expressed at his death also set a tone that has coloured people’s perception of celebrity deaths since?

There are therefore perhaps two separate questions. Are more celebrities dying? And, is the reaction to those deaths becoming more pronounced?

Well, if the editorial choices made by news organisations is anything to go by, then there has been a spike in the frequency of celebrity deaths.

BBC News has been looking at this question and spoke to its obituaries editor Nick Serpell.

He confirmed that the broadcaster has run double the number of obituaries this year compared to last. Serpell says that, across radio, television and online, the BBC ran 24 obituaries in the first three months of 2016 compared to 12 in 2015.

This figure, he adds, relates only to full obituaries and not to other smaller news reports of other celebrity deaths.

Across TheJournal.ie and The42.ie, the rate of increase in published obituaries is exactly the same as that reported by the BBC about its own coverage.

Up until yesterday, we’ve published 52 obituaries this year, about half of which related to sports stars. This is double compared to the same period in 2015 when 26 obituaries were published.

But obviously there’s been no major spike in the death rate among the wider public, so why are we hearing about all these celebrities dying?

Serpell says it’s partly because of timing, with people who came to fame in the 50s and 60s with the advent of television, now entering old age. The same can be said of the stars of a golden era of music half a century ago.

“Music in particular, we had the growth of rock n’ roll and rock music,” Serpell says.

Remember the great Who song about My Generation and wanting to ‘die before I get old’?Well, while some of them did, most of them didn’t and all these people from the rise and growth of celebrities are now reaching that period in their 70s where they’re going to start to die.

Source: RockIsDeadTheySay :')/YouTube

#RIPPrince

But what about that second question. Is the coverage of celebrity deaths being overblown to an extent that it’s creating a false impression?

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that the feelings of loss felt by devoted fans of deceased singers, for example, are real.

Several studies have pointed to the fact that young adults especially can develop an attachment to celebrity idols that shape their identity and self-worth. The resultant death can provoke a strong emotional response, even if it is more fleeting than the death of a loved one.

Allied to this is the transformative effect social media has had on the process of public mourning. That emotional response now has both a powerful outlet and a medium in which to connect faraway fans.

And of course, as is their role, the wider mainstream media will both reflect and cater to that increasingly vocal outpouring of grief.

In the hours after Prince’s death, for example, media outlets not only published articles about his life and death, but also created content tailored specifically for fans to share online.

The New Yorker’s 25 April edition had already been sent to print when news of Prince’s death broke on Thursday 21 April. Despite this, the magazine took the decision to share their plans for the following week’s cover in the hours after his passing.

The image has been shared over 50,000 times on Facebook and retweeted over 10,000 times on Twitter.

Confirmation bias also comes into play here, if there’s a perception that more celebrities are dying in 2016 then more deaths are likely to be talked about to uphold that perception.

Either way, an increased importance placed on celebrity deaths does create challenges for media organisations.

While public emotions rightly form part of any decision-making process, a cold eye is sometimes required when there’s a finite amount of space and prominence an outlet can devote to any news story, deaths or otherwise.

As The Guardian points out, it has given over its front page to high-profile deaths on six separate occasions this year.

That in itself creates a problem.

If it becomes the new normal that a celebrity death warrants a front page, does it become a perceived slight if they don’t receive one?

As the traditional first draft of history, it’s also a news outlet’s job to allocate prominence based on its significance. It means that if the death of famous actors like Alan Rickman are given the front page treatment, then cultural icons like Prince must be given almost devoted coverage based on their relative influence.

It’s an issue the media will have to come to terms with as celebrity baby boomers continue to enter their old age.

One thing is for certain though, the traditional news report plus obituary model is dead. RIP.

Read: Search to identify Prince’s heirs as he died ‘without a will’ >

Read: One of a kind: How Prince broke all of pop’s rules and became an icon >

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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