Killed by the Media

by M-Gillies

In 1969, Paul McCartney was declared dead by the media. This fuelled a whole conspiracy theory

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  ~ Mark Twain

In an era where word of mouth travels faster than news reported, it’s not uncommon for legitimate news sources to learn of a celebrity’s passing from outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr and many other social media websites that have quickly proliferated over the last decade. With the ability to log-on and plug-in anywhere and on virtually anything, from cellphones, laptops, tablets, and e-readers, the news of ones passing scarcely goes unnoticed – especially if you’re a celebrity.

To keep up with the Information Revolution and the rapid streamlining of current affairs, it has become important formedia outlets to maintain an active role in the online community. While it used to be news outlets breaking the news of the deaths of celebrities – information which often came from managers, agents, family or funeral homes – today’s modern age is filled with information that can spread across the world in a matter of seconds. Because of this instantaneous relay of information, there have been numerous incidents of premature obituaries. Below are some of the most common reasons for being killed by the media.

“A Case of Accidental Publication”

Steve Jobs - Since news of Steve Jobs‘ battle with pancreatic cancer back in 2004 surfaced, Bloomberg News Service had been updating their file on Steve Jobs’ obituary when it  was erroneously published rather than saved back in 2008. Though the obituary was subsequently taken down, the impact had already taken effect as concern arose over Steve Jobs’ successor and the future of Apple.

Sharon Osbourne - During a technical error, a draft of Ozzy Osbourne’s wife, Sharon Osbourne’s obituary was published accidentally on the ABC News website in October 2004. Just two years prior, Sharon was diagonsed with colon cancer, which soon spread to her lymph nodes, giving her a 33% survival prognosis.

George W. Bush – While testing a banner headline on South Africa’s ETV News, a technician accidently pressed the broadcast live for transmission button with a scrolling text reading, “George Bush is dead.”

Joe DiMaggio - New Yorker Yankees’ center fielder, Joe DiMaggio had been a heavy smoker for much of his adult life, and after news of his being admitted to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Florida surfaced in 1998, speculation of his death was soon to follow. During January 1999, two months before his death, NBC ran a scrolling text report along the bottom of the television screen reporting on his death, while DiMaggio himself saw the text as he lay near death. The error was eventually attributed to a technician who had pressed the wrong button.

Marcus Gravey - Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur and black nationalist, Marcus Gravey had suffered a stroke in January 1940. However, it was only after reading his obituary in the Chicago Defender, which described him as “broke, alone and unpopular” that he suffered a second stroke and died.

Bob Hope - The first incident of Bob Hope’s premature death occurred in 1998, when his obituary appeared on the Associated Press web site. Due to the erroneous report, his death was further announced in the United States House of Representatives, which was broadcasted live on C-SPAN.

“The Incident”

On April 16, 2003, pre-written draft memorials were discovered on which included memorials to Nelson Mandela, Bob Hope, Dick Cheney, Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul II, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Below are just some of the information included in these drafts, which followed a template of other memorials:

Fidel Castro - In Fidel Castro’s memorial, he was described as a lifeguard, athlete and movie star, which were references to the life of Ronald Reagan.

Dick Cheney - Dick Cheney was described as the UK’s favorite grandmother.

Bob Hope - The second incident of Bob Hope’s premature obituary occurred during the incident, which saw Hope’s obituary stating he was Queen Consort and the UK’s favorite grandmother, as it used the same template as that of the Queen Mother.

Pope John Paul II - Once again, using the Queen Mother’s memorial as a template, Pope John Paul II was noted for his love of racing. This was the second time he had been prematurely written as dead by CNN. However, the incident wasn’t the last time he would be claimed to have died before his time. In April 2005, Fox News falsely reported he had died after his ECG had gone flat.

“A Case of Name Confusion”

Alfred Nobel - Perhaps the most famous incident of premature obituaries, Alfred Nobel was considered a famed inventor, known for creating high-powered explosives to be used as an easier method of constructing dams, tunnels, canals and roads. However, after his brother Ludwig Nobel had died, he discovered in the morning paper that they had mistook his brother for him and wrote about Nobel as the “Merchant of Death” and a “bellicose monster”. Disturbed by his portrayal, Nobel used his family name and wealth to award cash prizes to create the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mark Twain - American author, Mark Twain has often been quoted throughout the years, but perhaps his most famous quote was that of, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. But that wasn’t the first time he was thought to have died. While the first incident occurred after a journalist enquired about Twain’s health, thinking he was near death – the truth was it was Twain’s cousin who was ill. However, the second incident occurred in 1907, when people had lost track of a yacht he had been travelling on. While the New York Times published an article saying he might have been lost at sea. It turns out that his yacht had been held up by fog and Twain had disembarked. To clear up his death, Twain wrote a humorous account and sent it to the New York Times the following day.

Sean Connery - While making an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in October, 1993, Sean Connery described the recent reports of his death as the result of a confusion with the recent death of former Texas governor John Connally. These rumors were further strengthened by the fact that Connery had recently undergone treatment for throat cancer.

Jeffery Combs - American horror film actor and reoccurring star of Star Trek, Jeffery Combs was confused with a businessman named Jeffery Coombs who was one of the passengers to die aboard the hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center during the September 11 attacks. With many news media outlets pronouncing him dead, Combs had to make a public announcement that he was in fact, still alive.

“A Case of the Internet Hoax”

Jon Bon Jovi - On December 19, 2011, news circulated throughout the social networking sites of the sudden death of Jon Bon Jovi, who was said to have suffered cardiac arrest, while being transported to a nearby hospital. As the news grew to become a large trending topic, the 49-year-old rocker posted a photo of himself on Facebook holding  a hand-written note stating, “Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey,” signed with the date and the time.

Kanye West - Outspoken and often controversial, Kanye West was the subject of a news report that went viral on October 20, 2009. It had been said, the hip/hop artist had been killed in a car crash. News quickly spread throughout social networks, becoming a trending topic on Twitter, which further prompted West’s then girlfriend Amber Rose to respond, “This RIP Kanye West topic is not funny and it’s NOT TRUE.” It was later discovered that the death notice was generated from an Internet hoax site.

Will Ferrell - Back in 2006,, a site known to accept submissions from readers and publish them as press releases, received word that the comedian had died in a paragliding accident. Before the factual inaccuracy of the article was noticed, it was published to the site and further picked up by Google News.

Miley Cyrus - It was on September 5, 2008, when a news report from Reuters went viral on the net. The article claimed that pop singer and actress Miley Cyrus had died in a terrible car accident. While news of her death was quickly debunked, as the following Friday Cyrus had performed in concert, the news had already found its way onto celebrity gossip site TMZ.

Jeff Goldblum - The same day that actress Farrah Fawcett and musician Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, actor Jeff Goldnlum was said to have died after falling more than 60 feet while filming a movie in New Zealand. The news came from Australia’s Channel Nine news, but the report was quickly debunked as a hoax created by hoax website

Zsa Zsa Gabor - At the age of 95, and declining physical health due to a 2002, automobile accident, which left her partially paralyzed and reliant on a wheelchair, surviving two strokes, one in 2005, and the second in 2007, fracturing her hip, requiring her to undergo surgery in 2010, amputation of her right leg in 2011 due to an infection and numerous hospitalizations for various emergencies, Zsa Zsa Gabor has been closely watched by the vulturous eyes of the media and bloggers. However, while she has survived multiple health crises, in early 2011, many websites, including her wikipedia page, reported Gabor dead. While the news was quickly revealed to be a hoax, it wasn’t enough to stop the news from spreading to several websites as fact.

“A Brush with Death”

Ernest Hemingway - In 1954, author Ernest Hemingway and his wife Mary Welsh were involved in two African plane crashes. While they both survived, newspapers reported that they had both died. After suffering extensive injuries which affected him for the rest of his life, Hemingway is said to have read a scrapbook of his obituaries every morning with a glass of champagne.

Peter Boyle - During the early 1990s, actor Peter Boyle was incorrectly declared deceased a few weeks after suffering a massive stroke, which had left him in near paralysis and unable to move or speak for nearly six months. In the book, Cult Movie Stars by Danny Peary, Boyle is incorrectly given the lifespan of 1933-1990. It wasn’t until December 2006, that he died of multiple myeloma and heart disease.

Dave Swarbrick - Due to a chronic case of emphysema, folk singer Dave Swarbrick had suffered steadily deteriorating health, but after he was admitted to a hospital for chest infection, the Daily Telegraph newspaper published a premature obituary in 1999. While the premature publication of the obituary was an embarrassment for the Daily Telegraph, Swarbruck quipped, “It’s not the first time I have died in Coventry.”

“Word-of-Mouth Death Hoax”

Paul McCartney - In 1969, it was reported on the radio DJ Russ Gibb’s show on WKNR-FM Detroit that Beatles musician Paul McCartney was proclaimed dead by a caller, after he had been killed in a car crash in London. While it was quickly rebutted in a fanzine, the report soon turned into an urban legend which went on to suggest that McCartney had actually died and was replaced secretly with a look-alike. This was further fuelled by the publication of articles written by college students who theorized that The Beatles albums had included numerous clues to point out McCartney’s death, such as the “turn me on, dead man” passage heard on the song Revolution 9, when played backwards. Another was the interpretation of the Abbey Road album cover, which could be seen as symbolising a funeral procession, where John Lennon is dressed in white, symbolizing a preacher or heavenly figure; Ringo Starr dressed in full black, symbolizing a mourner; George Harrison, bearded and dressed in denim jeans and shirt, symbolizing a gravedigger; and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with other members of the band, symbolizes the corpse.

“A Case of Misunderstanding”

Alice Cooper - Shock rocker, Alice Cooper is known for many things, from his theatrical stage performances, to his stage persona, but it was in the early 1970s when readers of the magazine Melody Maker saw a satirical concert review of the rock musician in the form of a mock obituary and mistook it for a true report of the musician’s death. Due to so many fans taking the article seriously, Cooper issued a statement, reassuring them that he was in fact alive “…  and drunk as usual.”

Luca Barbareschi - In the 1980s a horror film titled Cannibal Holocaust was released. Filmed as a realistic documentary of the deaths of a documentary crew at the hands of Amazonian indigenous tribes. The film was so realistic that police believed the four Italian actors in the film had been murdered. In fact, director Ruggero Deodato was arrested for the murders. What actually happened was in an attempt to capitalize on worldwide exposure and free publicity, Deodato had all four actors sign contracts, which stated they remain out of the media eye for one whole year to fuel the controversy over the film. To clear his name of murder charges and convince the courts that they were alive, Deodato cancelled the contracts, so they could appear on television shows as proof. Luca Barbareschi was one of the four actors believed to have been killed during the film.

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