The news flashed around the world on June 8. Anthony Bourdain was dead in a hotel room in France while on assignment for his CNN foodie show Parts Unknown.
Then the hand wringing began.
Reporters are taught – at least by me – to think like their audience. Answer their questions. Period. Leaving gaps in a story is a sin punishable by yelling and an order to get back on the phone and ASK THE QUESTION.
The question here was an obvious one. What killed the world-famous chef?
I loved Bourdain’s show and envied his gig. He travelled the world, sitting down to eat with people and talk. He sat in the cafeteria at Lake Hoare in Antarctica. Google it. Head south from New Zealand and you’ll bump into it, on your way to the south pole.
And I loved his writing. He pulled the lid back – lovingly, reverently and bluntly – on the cooking world in his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential.
“I don't eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef personally, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service. I love mussels. But in my experience, most cooks are less than scrupulous in their handling of them,” he wrote.
“Some restaurants, I'm sure, have special containers, with convenient slotted bins, which allow the mussels to drain while being held - and maybe, just maybe, the cooks at these places pick carefully through every order, mussel by mussel, making sure that every one is healthy and alive before throwing them into a pot…
“I haven't worked in too many places like that…
“I will eat bread in restaurants. Even if I know it’s probably been recycled off someone else's table…
“OK, maybe once in a while some tubercular hillbilly has been coughing and spraying in the general direction of that bread basket, or some tourist who’s just returned from a walking tour of the wetlands of West Africa sneezes – you might find that prospect upsetting.
“But you might just as well avoid air travel, or subways, equally dodgy environments for airborne transmission of disease. Eat the bread.”
He was a friend - in that mysterious way people on TV become friends because you let them into your living room. So, I wanted to know what had happened.
The first story was brief. A newsroom rushing to get the news out first. It said little more than he had died. I started Googling around, looking for more. And that’s where it got complicated.
Different newsrooms have different rules when it comes to reporting deaths like Bourdain’s. Some avoid using certain words in the headlines. Some avoid using them in the sub-headlines, the mini-headline that runs under the big one. Some avoid details. Some include a 1-800 number.
You see, Anthony Bourdain hung himself in his hotel room in Strasbourg, France. And suicide is different.
Reporters hate covering them. Friends and family, thinking they should have known, should have done something, blame themselves. Then they look for someone else to blame, and the reporters calling for photos, comments and information are handy. Experts warn reporting on suicide can set off other suicides.
CNN promptly said Bourdain died of suicide by hanging, many sites hesitated. He was 61.
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- Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.