Sensationalism in the media is not always intentional.When a celebrity or public figure is elderly or ill, drafts of obituaries are often prepared in advance. While this can be convenient, it can also lead to disaster when these drafts are released prematurely.
Other times when the media kills someone off, it's actually a hoax or miscommunication. When someone who is not famous or well-known with a similar name dies, it can lead to confusion and an erroneous announcement that the deceased was actually someone in the public eye.
Each time a premature death announcement occurs, media outlets are thrown into damage-control mode. Those who have been murdered by the media have had different reactions. Some take it as a joke, others accept that it was an error. In some cases, the non-deceased take it very badly.
Many notable people have been prematurely declared dead, and the list continues to grow.
When a Super 8 film camera was found in Michigan in 1989, local police believed it contained evidence of a gang killing. The footage showed a man who was apparently dead, lying in the street. Since the body could not be identified, the police requested the FBI investigate the case.
The dead man in the street was actually Trent Reznor and the video was shot in Chicago for the Nine Inch Nails’ song Down in It. The footage was lost when a weather balloon the camera was attached to broke loose and vanished.
After a year-long investigation, fliers with pictures of the body were circulated. An art student recognized the dead man as the very much alive Trent Reznor, and the mystery was solved.
As speculation about Steve Jobs health was running rampant and shaking up things on Wall Street, Bloomberg was busy behind the scenes writing Jobs’ obituary. Although boldly marked “HOLD FOR RELEASE – DO NOT USE – HOLD FOR RELEASE – DO NOT USE” across the top, the 17-page obituary was accidentally published on August 27, 2008, then quickly retracted. Later, at a public appearance, Jobs took a lighthearted approach and quoted Mark Twain by saying: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Pope Benedict XV
When Pope Benedict XV became ill with pneumonia in January 1922, the world watched and waited. Many expected his death.
They didn't have long to wait before the news of his death appeared as a 7-column leading headline on a New York newspaper. The headline announced "Pope Benedict XV is Dead" with a triple-column lead underneath sadly lamenting "Pope Benedict XV is no more."
When the news of the Pope's death was found to be a monumental error, the newspaper quickly printed a follow-up edition with the same 7-column headline, this time proclaiming "Pope Has Remarkable Recovery." However, that headline was again in error, as Pope Benedict XV succumbed to the illness a short time later on January 22.
George W. Bush
In February 2009, ETV News in South Africa mistakenly ran a ticker at the bottom of the newscast announcing former U.S. President George W. Bush had died.
A technician pressed the "broadcast live for transmission" button during the broadcast, which caused the words “George Bush is dead” to scroll across the screen. The words appeared on the screen for only three seconds, but made a lasting impact as it sent instant shockwaves around the world.
The pre-written obituary of Cuban leader Fidel Castro was discovered on April 16, 2003 in a publicly accessable development area of CNN.com that was searchable on Google.
Castro’s obituary was found among pre-written obituaries that had been prepared for other world leaders. The draft obituaries were formatted, but most did not contain correct information.
Castro’s draft obituary described him as a “lifeguard, athlete and movie star.” It is believed that Ronald Reagan’s obituary was used as a template for the prematurely drafted obituary.
Within the batch of pre-written obituary drafts found on CNN.com in 2003 was one for U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. On Cheney’s mockup obituary, he was quoted as saying: “I’ve had a fairly successful career in the public and private sectors… I am unusually blessed" after a health checkup in November 2000.
The rough draft lists his date of death as 2001 and noted that he was the “Queen Consort” and the “UK’s favorite grandmother," which was a dead giveaway that it was based on the Queen Mother’s obituary.
In the early 1970s, British music magazine Melody Maker overestimated its readers’ understanding of satire. The magazine ran a fake obituary for rocker Alice Cooper, which sent fans into a mad frenzy.
So many people mistook the piece as a factual account, Cooper felt it was necessary to make a personal announcement that he was still in the land of the living. His statement to the public was “I’m alive, and drunk as usual.”
Pop starlet Miley Cyrus was erroneously reported dead on September 5, 2008.
The rumor that Cyrus had been killed in a tragic car crash started as a prank when a Digg.com user teamed up with a Wikipedia editor and submitted the false story to the social media site.
The fake story of Cyrus’ death was then picked up by Reuters and TMZ.com and from there spread quickly around the Internet. The following Friday, Cyrus performed in concert, putting an end to the rumor.
Not content to let Cyrus live on, hackers broke into Cyrus’ YouTube account on November 16, 2008 and posted a video, again claiming that the star had died.
Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio was reportedly furious when he saw the news of his death flash along the bottom of a television screen in January 1999.
A technician at NBC’s data control room in New York accidentally released the false report during a broadcast of Dateline NBC. A ticker rolled, displaying the message:
"This is an NBC News Special Report. Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio has died at his Florida home. He was 84 years old and had..."
Before the false report had finished, it was stopped. Twenty minutes later the network ran a second ticker, this time announcing that the news of DiMaggio’s death was false. DiMaggio died from complications of lung cancer on March 8, 1999.
On 1998, Xfm radio DJ Bob Geldof reported English rock and roll singer, songwriter, and bandleader Ian Dury had died. Dury had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1996 and underwent surgery. However, the cancer spread to his liver and was diagnosed as terminal.
After reporting the false rumor, Geldof was named “the world’s worst DJ” by music publication NME. Reports later surfaced that Geldof may have been punked by a listener who was disgruntled over the sale of the radio station.
Comedian Will Ferrell was falsely reported dead in March 2006. Free online press release service i-Newswire published a press release saying Ferrell had been killed in a paragliding accident.
The press release was written by an anonymous prankster and apparently made it past an editor who was not familiar with Ferrell. When i-Newswire learned of the hoax, the press release was immediately removed from the site. Sources close to Ferrell say he was in Montreal on a movie set when the news of his death surfaced and has never been paragliding.
The premature obituary of former U.S. President Gerald Ford was among several found in an unprotected directory on CNN.com on April 16, 2003. Ford’s premature obituary was also the subject of satire in a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring comedian Dana Carvey.
After suffering health complications and being hospitalized several times in 2006, Ford passed away at his home on December 26, 2006.
In 1954, author and journalist Ernest Hemmingway and wife Mary Welsh Hemmingway were reported dead after being involved in two separate African plane crashes. Hemmingway suffered severe injuries in the crashes, which is believed to have led to depression and other mental health problems that plagued him for the rest of his life.
After one failed suicide attempt in the spring of 1961, he ended his life on July 2, 1961. Hemmingway died from a single self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Bob Hope’s death was erroneously reported twice before his actual death on July 27, 2003. A report of the entertainer’s death was announced in the United States House of Representatives and broadcast live on C-SPAN in 1998 after his premature obituary was published on the Associated Press website.
Then in 2003, a draft of Hope’s obituary was one of those found on CNN’s website. In that version of his obituary, he was noted as the “Queen Consort” and the “UK’s favorite grandmother,” as was Dick Cheney in a draft obituary stored in the same location.
Humphrey was the chief mouser at 10 Downing Street for more than eight years. Adopted as a stray, the cat served under Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair.
Humphrey’s death was first announced in September 1995 because he had been missing since June of that year and was presumed to be dead. However, he was later found to be living nearby at the Royal Army Medical College.
He returned to his post at Downing Street until November 1997 when he vanished. Rumors swirled that Cherie Blair hated Humphrey so much that she had him killed. The government insisted that Humphrey was not dead, but had merely retired out of the public eye. The issue was raised in Parliament when Alan Clark MP demanded proof that the cat was still alive. Photographs of Humphrey posing with the day’s newspapers surfaced shortly thereafter, proving that once again, his death had only been a rumor.
In March 2006, Tony Blair announced that Humphrey had truly passed away.
A spoofed report of the death of former American Idol contestant William Hung caused a media frenzy in 2004. The Broken Newz Web site ran a piece saying Hung had died of an intentional heroin overdose.
Given that there are those who do not understand satire, the report was taken at face value by many. To quell the hysteria, Hung issued a public statement to prove that he is, in fact, still alive.
Pope John Paul II
The media put one of Pope John Paul II’s feet in the grave three times before he actually passed away. Following the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II, CNN caused controversy by implying he had died. CNN reports around the world repeatedly referred to the Pope in past tense, leading to the assumption he was deceased.
Again, in 2003, a draft of the Pope’s obituary was found, along with others, on an unprotected development directory on CNN.com. This obituary noted the Pope’s love of racing and was obviously based on the Queen Mother’s template.
Hours before the Pope actually died, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith incorrectly broke the news that he was already gone. This report was based on a false announcement by the Italian media that his ECG had flat lined.
Nelson Mandela, was born July 18th, 1918 in South Africa. He served as President of South Africa from 1994-1999 and was the first president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. Prior to his presidency, Mandela served 27 years in prison after being convicted of sabotage and other crimes while he led the movement against apartheid. A pre-written obituary for Mandela was among the group of premature CNN obituary drafts found in April 2003.
In 1996, a caller to DJ Russ Gibb’s WKNR-FM Detroit’s radio show insisted that Paul McCartney was dead. A few days later, New York DJ Roby Yonge discussed Paul McCartney’s death on a late-night show and was fired as a result. The rumors of McCartney’s death are linked to supposed hints and clues in Beatles songs that fuel the urban legend that he died long ago and was secretly replaced by a look-alike double.
The obituary of Alfred Nobel, arms manufacturer and founder of the Nobel Prize, was erroneously published in several newspapers in 1888 after the death of Nobel’s brother, Ludvig. In France, one obituary read : “The merchant of death is dead.” The French obituary went on to say that Nobel gained wealth through finding better and faster ways to kill more people.
Some speculate that the publication of these scathing premature obituaries drove him to found the Nobel Prize, in hopes of leaving a more positive legacy after his death.
Sharon Osbourne, wife of rocker Ozzy Osbourne, was diagnosed with colon cancer in July 2002. Despite the prognosis of only a 33 percent chance of survival and the fact that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, she survived.
Apparently, someone at ABC News did not receive the memo, and in October 2004 an incomplete draft of the obituary of Sharon Osbourne was published on its Web site. It was quickly removed and an ABC spokesperson issued an apology for the error.
The Queen Mother
In 1993, a Sky News employee saw one of the many internal rehearsals for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s death conducted by the UK media. Not realizing it was a rehearsal, the employee called his mother in Australia to tell her the news. She promptly passed the story on to the media, which ignited frenzy.
The employee was fired for the error, but later won a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. The Queen Mother passed away in 2002. Her obituary served as the template for many of the premature obituaries found on a CNN server in April 2003.
Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. President, survived an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981. John Hinkley Jr. opened fire on the President, James Brady and two other secret service staff. The bullet that hit Reagan missed his heart by only an inch and he suffered a collapsed lung. He recovered, but it was later revealed that Reagan’s life was in danger due to the rapid blood loss he experienced.
On July 13, 1985, Reagan had surgery to remove cancerous polyps from his colon. Later that year, he had two separate procedures to remove skin cancer cells from his nose.
In 1987, Reagan underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate and later had a third procedure to remove skin cancer cells.
After surviving all of these health issues during his presidency, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in August, 1994. A draft of his premature obituary was found, along with those of other still-living public figures, in an online CNN directory.
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake
In 2001, then-couple Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were reported dead.
Two Texas DJs started the rumor that the pair had been killed in a car crash. The management at KEGL didn't find the joke funny. The station was sued for the prank and both DJs were fired.
When people magazine put the words "the late" in front of Abe Vigoda's name in 1982 it started a running joke that lives on to this day.
After being referred to as "the late Abe Vigoda" in the article, the actor posed for a picture in a coffin, holding a copy of the magazine that pronounced him dead. Since that time, jokes about whether Vigoda is actually alive or dead have continued to circulate. A website has been put up to keep the world informed of Vigoda's status at AbeVigoda.com.
Vigoda has been good natured about the running joke. However, he says that during the 1980s, the erroneous announcement of his death hurt his career and cost him work.