When is it okay to reveal a spoiler?

Last week the spoiler debate went to a whole new level.

It started after Sons of Anarchy writer-producer Kurt Sutter tweeted about real-life actor Johnny Lewis’ violent demise (Lewis apparently murdered his landlord then fell to his death). In Sutter’s tweet, which we quoted in a blog post, the writer-producer mentioned a fictional Sons character who was killed off in an episode that aired a couple days earlier.

Some readers were furious, insisting EW.com should have added “spoiler” to the story’s headline. Others were equally offended by people who would focus on spoilers during a tragedy. “I think there are more important things than your precious storylines, like when an 81-year-old lady is beaten to death in her home,” one reader wrote.

So when it is okay to reveal a spoiler?

First, there’s no way everybody will agree on this. Some readers love spoilers, as evidenced by the popularity of Sandra Gonzalez’s Spoiler Room column. Others loathe them (personally, the more I like a show, the less I want to know what is going to happen). And then there’s everybody in between.

Our rule of thumb: We avoid spoilers in headlines or tweets — especially tweets, since we’re actively pitching stories out to readers. If there’s a major spoiler in a story, we typically put a warning in the headline or in the text. We’re also careful about the way we present stories on the EW.com homepage the night a show airs and the next morning (such as covering who got voted off the island on Survivor).

The Sutter post was an extreme case. I couldn’t imagine writing the headline “Sons of Anarchy Creator Reacts to Actor’s Death — Spoiler Alert!” That would be tacky, to say the least. I could have noted the spoiler was coming in the story’s body text and perhaps should have — it just wasn’t on my mind given the seriousness of the context.

Now here’s where it gets tricky: What is a spoiler?

Ahhh. One man’s exciting upcoming storyline is another man’s day-ruining revelation. The only thing everybody seems to agree on is that a character’s death is a spoiler. But even that gets slippery. For how long is a character death a spoiler? At what point should bloggers feel they can freely reference an actor/character is no longer on a show? What if the actor gets a job on another show? How long should intrusive “spoiler alert!” guard rails get added into stories to protect those who are not actively watching the show? We typically stop warning readers a day or two after the episode airs, though we usually remain sensitive about headlines when it comes to major spoilers.

Often, we’ll have a story that will reference a plot twist that happened months/years ago, and somebody will comment: “I haven’t watched that yet!” But if a show aired a long time ago and you still haven’t watched it and you dislike spoilers and you choose to read a story about that show’s current or upcoming episodes, you gotta know you’re setting yourself up for hitting a spoiler, no matter what website you’re on, right?

This issue is getting increasingly contentious because more and more TV viewing is happening later and later after a show first airs. Between DVRs, DVDs, OnDemand and streaming services, it’s not unusual to find somebody who’s really excited because they just started watching the first season of AMC’s Breaking Bad, which debuted four years ago (spoiler alert: Walt and Jesse are still alive!).

Some in the anti-spoiler crowd even take an absolute hardline stance that says you can’t write about anything in a way that assumes readers have any familiarity with a show’s major plot points. The print edition of Entertainment Weekly once received a letter from a reader who was furious we mentioned Rosebud was the name of the sled in 1941′s Citizen Kane.

Our mission is to cover entertainment news, not shield readers from it. But we try our best to make sure you don’t getting a jarring and undeserved shock that ruins your experience. After all, we love this stuff too.

What do you think? When is it okay to reveal a spoiler? And what is a spoiler?

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