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22/10/2012

How to notify of a death in this digital era - part 1


To be the second person posting about it

On July 23rd 2012, Barry Llewellyn called his aunt, 49 year old Cheryl Jones, asking what has happened to Karla James, her daughter (30 years old and the mother of a young girl). "What do you mean by 'what happened?'?", Cheryl asked. Barry had to tell her he saw "R.I.P.Karla" on Facebook, posted by Karla's friends. In obvious panic, Cheryl called her only daughter's mobile phone, only to have a police officer answer it in her stead, telling Cheryl that another police office will be over shortly. Karla collapsed close to her home - not far from her mother's home, in South Wales, UK - and was pronounced dead at 20:17.

The police arrived at Cheryl's house to notify her of Karla's death at 23:38 (Cheryl filed a complaint). Between 20:17 and 23:38, Karla's friends expressed their grief online on Facebook, Cheryl's nephew saw it, and you already know the rest. 

Cheryl holding a picture of Karla

On their 20th birthday, on February 7th 2010, twins Angela and Maryanne Vourlis woke and went online to see what greetings were already posted on their Facebook pages. Instead, they found "R.I.P. Bobby" and "R.I.P.Chris" postings: Bobby is their 17 year old brother, Chris is his best friend.

They weren't able to fathom what was going on and tried to get a hold of their brother by calling and texting him. When he didn't reply, they called their mother: "People in Facebook write that Chris has been killed, so that's probably true, but - what about Bobby? It's written in Facebook that he was killed too". Their mother said she didn't know where Bobby was at that moment and confirmed he did go out with Chris the previous night.

In this case, the sisters and their mother all learned of this death through Facebook. The mother called the nearest police station in attempts to track down her son. She received the heartbreaking news that Bobby and Chris (as well as another friend) were indeed dead - killed six hours earlier when the car they drove in crashed due to heavy rains, in Sydney, Australia. It took the police too long to reach the family. Facebook was faster. 

17 year old Bobby Vourlis 

On March 2nd 2011, when my brother, Tal Shavit, was killed, he was identified on the spot where the car had hit him. Since he was a public figure in Israel, so well known and well loved, news of his death traveled directly from the scene of his death and spread quickly - about half of Israel's population knew he was dead before we, his family, knew of it. The news spread quickly by word of mouth and, of course, went online as well. The managers of the various vehicles and motorcycles forums were caring and responsible enough to sit, glued to their screens that entire afternoon, and manually delete hundreds of messages posted by grieving forum members. They only approved messages in which Tal wasn't mentioned by name, until they were certain the family was notified. 

In one of the Israeli websites, nrg, the reporters and editors made a poor, unethical decision of going online with the "scoop" of my brother's death at a time in which neither of us - our sister, our parents, or me - knew of his death yet. Tal was a senior and much admired reporter and journalist and among other things, was head of the motorcycle section in another Israeli website, ynet.

In an unusual manner of conduct, the senior editors at ynet contacted the senior editors at nrg and demanded that this news item be taken offline. nrg did, and re posted it later, after the family was notified of Tal's death. It didn't happen, but our mother, my sister, or me, might have learned of Tal's death from surfing the net, or perhaps a relative might have seen it and called one of us to ask what had happened, and we would not have known what he was talking about (a good friend of mine, A., did see the item in nrg the first time it was online, when we didn't yet know. Fortunately for all of us: 1. A. was sensitive and clever: She didn't pick up the phone immediately - she first tried to determine if I had already been notified, 2. She had direct access to people who are close to me and aren't family members to find out discreetly through). 

When I discussed this with senior editors of vehicle and motorcycle websites in the days following Tal's death, one of them (and I apologize for not remembering which one of you it was) told me that in this case he was following the guideline stating: "I want my website to be the second one publishing such news, not the first". 

In Hebrew: Forum managers asking members not to mention my brother by name yet. 
There are 445 online replies in this thread.  


In Hebrew: The item in nrg that went online, then offline,
then online again 
at 17:24, after we were notified.

The Israeli media was perceived as uncaring and unthoughtful when Rona Ramon, widow of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, learned of her son's death in a plane crash through reporters and photojournalists massing outside her house

Are the "official sources" for death notifications, i.e. police forces and army forces, too slow in the digital era? Probably. But in these digital times, every one of us is a reporter, every one is a journalist, every one is part of the media, every one could be the person through which (heaven forbid) a daughter, mother or sister might find out about a death of a loved one. Therefore, each one of us should act responsibly, and aim to be the second, not the first, to post such tidings. 

We could also show sensitivity, and post death-related information only after an appropriate amount of time has passed (i.e. hours and not minutes, for example), or after discreetly determining if all members of the immediate family were notified. 



Thank you Andriana Cassimatis for telling me about Cheryl Jones earlier this month, when we both attended "Digital Death Day" in London. 


How to notify of a death in this digital era - part 2 can be read here

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