Heche’s family revealed she was brain dead late last week after a car accident on August 5. That prompted some news organizations to report her death, based on a reading of a California law. “A person who has undergone irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem, is dead,” the statute reads.
But Heche remained on a ventilator for two more days so that her organs could be harvested for donation. When Heche’s publicist confirmed that she had been taken off the ventilator late Sunday night, news organizations released another round of news reports about her death.
It’s not the first time a celebrity’s death has caused 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 in serious condition Friday morning, a week after he collided with a Mini Cooper at a Los Angeles home, causing both to catch fire. With no apparent brain activity, she was kept on a ventilator pending an assessment of her organs.
Nevertheless, TMZ, the entertainment news website that is often the first to report celebrity deaths, posted a news story at 11:19 a.m. Los Angeles on Friday under the headline, “Anne Heche is dead at 53.” The story noted, “Her rep tells TMZ that Anne is ‘brain dead’ and under California law that is the definition of death.”
People magazine soon followed suit 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 a Reuters warning, inaccurately reported that Heche had died Friday after being removed from the ventilator; a Daily Mail spokesperson said editors had updated his story, but made no corrections.)
Other news sources made the distinction clear beforehand. The Hollywood Reporter headlined his story on Friday: “Anne Heche declared brain dead, still in life support after car accident, Rep says.” The Washington Post did much the same.
Some of the early reporting was aided by statements from Heche’s relatives declaring her dead. News organizations typically rely on relatives to confirm the death of a relative.
“My brother Atlas and I have lost our mother,” Heche’s son, Homer Laffoon, said in a much-debated statement on Friday. “After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I’m left with a deep, wordless grief… Rest in peace mommy, I love you.”
Variety, noting that Heche was technically still alive, released a statement Friday attributing it to Heche’s “family and friends”: “Today we lost a bright light, a kind and most joyful soul, a loving mother and a loyal friend,” was partially in. The publication published a follow-up story Sunday night reporting that she had been taken off the ventilator, terminating all signs of life.
California law and the family’s statements have prompted the LA Times to follow up on the news of Heche’s death on Friday, said Hillary Manning, a Times spokeswoman. She said the newspaper’s reporters “confirmed” with relatives that she had died.
But that wasn’t good enough for others. The New York Times said it has postponed the publication of Heche’s obituary until Sunday, when her death was “officially confirmed” and “out of respect for the family,” said a spokeswoman, Naseem Amini.
That caused confusion for Heche fans and the general public this weekend.
Heche’s Wikipedia page went through a torrent of revisions as users debated her status and changed her death date before at one point deleting it altogether. As of Monday night, her entry only listed the date of her death as “August 2022,” with a footnote explaining, “there is some confusion as to what her date of death really is until her official death certificate is made public.”
The Post’s obituary editor, Adam Bernstein, said the newspaper does not recognize brain death, which is sometimes partial, as a clear marker of death.
“It’s black and white. There’s no gray area here. If you’re on a ventilator, you’re still alive,” Bernstein said. “Other publications can decide for themselves when they’re comfortable with publishing. really dead.”
Others saw it that way, despite the family’s statements and California law. “We chose to wait until she was off the ventilator,” said Mike Barnes, editor-in-chief of the Hollywood Reporter, which has written 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, sympathized with the reporters. “I don’t think anyone did anything wrong journalistically or ethically. The family is not angry with anyone,” said this person. “It was a complicated situation when you keep a body alive to harvest the organs. But that was Anne’s wish. It is part of her legacy.”
The rush to get the news out could tell a bigger story 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 everyday journalism, but today, the death of a prominent figure can generate huge streams of readers. As a result, some news organizations are stocking hundreds of “precursors” — prewritten obituaries of famous people that can be published within minutes of a confirmed death.
But some deaths aren’t deaths at all. There is a long history of premature coverage of the demise of famous people, dating back decades. The causes range from hoaxes, inadvertent publication of advances and inaccurate information, usually from family members, business associates and government officials.
For example, news organizations prematurely reported the death of rock star Tom Petty in 2017, according to a source at the Los Angeles Police Department. Actress Tanya Roberts was reported dead a day before she died last year due to misinformation from her publicist, who relied on Roberts’ partner. Managers of “Leave It to Beaver” co-star Tony Dow had to retract a premature Facebook post announcing his death last month after his wife falsely told them the critically ill actor had been pronounced dead. He died a day later.
“You have to be wary of being the first but being wrong,” Bernstein said. “If you play it conservatively, you might lose a few clicks, but readers will trust you more in the long run.”
An earlier version of this article referred to the case of Terri Schiavo, a woman who spent seven years in a vegetative state before her death. The reference was removed because it seemed to create an equivalence between brain death and a vegetative state. A sentence stating that The Washington Post does not recognize brain death as a clear marker of death has also been updated to clarify that brain death can be partial.