Heche’s family disclosed that she was brain dead late last week following an Aug. 5 car crash. That prompted some news organizations to report her death, based on a reading of a California law. “An individual who has sustained … irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead,” reads the statute.
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 organizations published a new round of news stories reporting her death.
It’s not the first time that a celebrity’s passing was accompanied by public confusion. But Heche’s case was particularly unusual, with the date of death dependent on competing definitions of what it means to be dead.
Heche was, by all accounts, in grave condition on Friday morning, a week after crashing a Mini Cooper into a Los Angeles house, causing both to catch fire. With no apparent brain activity, she was kept on life support pending an assessment of her organs.
Nevertheless, TMZ, the entertainment-news website that is often first to report celebrity deaths, posted a news story at 11:19 a.m. Los Angeles time on Friday under the headline, “Anne Heche Dead at 53.” The story noted, “Her rep tells TMZ Anne is ‘brain dead’ and under California law that is the definition of death.”
People magazine soon followed with a similar report, as did the L.A. Times. Both noted within the body of their stories that Heche was legally dead, though her body still functioned. (The Daily Mail, in an alert carried by Reuters, inaccurately reported that Heche had died Friday after being removed from life support; a Daily Mail spokesman said editors updated its story, but did not issue a correction.)
Other news sources made the distinction clear upfront. The Hollywood Reporter headlined its story on Friday: “Anne Heche Declared Brain Dead, Still on Life Support Following Car Crash, Rep Says.” The Washington Post did much the same.
Some of the early reporting was helped along by statements from Heche’s family members that declared her dead. News organizations typically rely on family members to confirm a relative’s death.
“My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom,” Heche’s son, Homer Laffoon, said in a widely reported 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, which noted that Heche was still technically alive, published a statement it attributed to Heche’s “family and friends” on Friday: “Today we lost a bright light, a kind and most joyful soul, a loving mother, and a loyal friend,” it read in part. The publication published a follow-up story Sunday night reporting that she had been taken off life support, ending all signs of life.
The California law and the family’s statements prompted the L.A. Times to go with the news of Heche’s death on Friday, said Hillary Manning, a Times spokeswoman. She said the newspaper’s reporters “confirmed” with family members that she had died.
But that wasn’t good enough for others. The New York Times said it held off publishing Heche’s obituary until Sunday when her death was “officially confirmed” and “out of respect for the family,” according to a spokeswoman, Naseem Amini.
That left Heche’s fans and the general public in confusion over the weekend.
Heche’s Wikipedia page underwent a flurry of revisions as users debated her status, changing her death date before deleting it altogether at one point. As of Monday night, her entry listed the date of her death only 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 obituaries editor, Adam Bernstein, said the newspaper doesn’t 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 life support, you’re still alive,” Bernstein said. “Other publications can make their own judgment about when they’re comfortable publishing. I’m comfortable when someone is actually dead.”
Others saw it that way, too, despite the family’s statements and California law. “We chose to wait until she was taken off life support,” said Mike Barnes, senior editor of the Hollywood Reporter, who has written hundreds of obits for the publication, including Heche’s.
A person close to the Heche family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations, was sympathetic to the reporters. “I don’t think anyone did anything journalistically or ethically wrong. The family isn’t angry at anyone,” said this person. “It was a complicated situation when you’re keeping a body alive to harvest the organs. But that was Anne’s wish. It’s part of her legacy.”
The rush to publish the news may tell a larger story about the value of being first to report a celebrity’s death in the internet age, noted Bernstein.
Obituaries were once a sleepy corner of daily journalism, but nowadays the death of a prominent figure can generate huge flows of readers. As a result, some news organizations stockpile hundreds of “advancers”— pre-written obits on well-known people that can be published within minutes of a confirmed death.
But some deaths aren’t deaths at all. There’s a long history of premature reporting about the demise of famous people, stretching back decades. The causes range from hoaxes, accidental publication of advance obits and inaccurate information, typically from family members, business associates and government officials.
News organizations, for example, prematurely reported the death of rock star Tom Petty in 2017 based on a source in 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’s partner. Managers for “Leave It to Beaver” co-star Tony Dow had to withdraw a premature Facebook post announcing his death last month after his wife mistakenly told them the gravely ill actor had been declared dead. He died a day later.
“You have to be on guard about being first but being wrong,” said Bernstein. “If you play it conservatively, you might sacrifice a few clicks, but readers will trust you more in the long run.”
A previous version of this article referenced the case of Terri Schiavo, a woman who spent seven years in a vegetative state before her death. The reference has been removed because it appeared to create an equivalence between brain death and a vegetative state. A sentence stating that The Washington Post doesn’t recognize brain death as a clear marker of death has also been updated to clarify that brain death can be partial.