On 11th August 2013, the world was rocked by the news of Robin Williams’ death. Even more tragic than the death of a much-loved celebrity was the fact that Williams had died following a suicide. In an attempt to explain what had happened, the media produced a stream of articles and, while the majority of articles discussed Williams’ death in a sensitive manner, there were some that raised questions about the way cases of suicide are discussed in the media.
Concerns were raised following a media conference announcing Robin Williams’ death where explicit details were given by the chief coroner about how Williams was found and what could have led to his premature death. Following this press conference, these details were then published by some media companies, provoking concerns for many organisations associated with suicide prevention, such as Mind and The Samaritans, who had previously released guidelines to the press on how to document this information:
Mind issued a briefing to all newsdesks twice yesterday with information on how to report suicide in a responsible way as there is clear evidence that media coverage of suicide, particularly graphic language illustrating the method used, can lead to copycat deaths. (Mind, 2014)
As research by both organisations suggested that media coverage on suicides commonly led to what they termed ‘copycat’ cases, it was hoped that these guidelines would safeguard vulnerable people in society by detailing what information was appropriate to publish. However, despite these guidelines, as Sarah Boseley (2014) reported, “in the rush to understand and report the death of Robin Williams, even that basic rule has been flouted.”
The Background to Media Guidelines:
Although media organisations have been criticised for their coverage of Robin Williams’ death, previously, charities like The Samaritans have sympathised with the difficulty of covering suicide in a comprehensive, but sensitive, way by stating:
Suicide is a complex topic and presents a distinct set of challenges for the journalists who report on it. They have to balance a range of factors including what is in the public interest and the risk of encouraging imitative behaviour. At the same time they must guard against intrusion into the grief and shock of the bereaved while considering industry regulation and codes of practice.
– The Samaritans (2013)
In addition to having to navigate a variety of safeguarding issues, media outlets are also under pressure to produce reports on breaking stories in a short space of time, meaning they are often unable to review the necessary guidelines prior to publishing their reports. Despite these time constraints, The Samaritans (2013) have stressed that accurate reporting should not be sacrificed for a quick story, meaning that, although media organisations have their own internal pressures to follow, they still have a duty of care to their readers.
In order to help media organisations consolidate these two obligations, Mind and The Samaritans have both published guidelines, detailing the most appropriate way to discuss suicide in the public domain. When explaining their rationale for these guidelines, the Samaritans (2013) stated that inappropriate reporting of suicides can often result in ‘copycat’ behaviours whereby vulnerable people are more likely to attempt the method reported when ending their own lives. These ‘copycat’ suicides are more likely when the person involved identifies with the person being reported on, especially when this person is a celebrity.
As Dr Ben Goldacre (2013, cited in the Samaritans, 2013) states, “Irresponsible reporting on suicide can have very damaging consequences”, meaning that it is increasingly important for media organisations to follow these guidelines in order to limit the risk of copycat suicides occurring and to protect the wellbeing of society at large.
The Guidelines for Reporting on Suicide:
In order to help the media report on suicides in a more sensitive manner, Mind and The Samaritans published the following guidelines:
- Media organisations should focus on the underlying issues that caused the suicide, rather than the actual method of suicide.
Mind (2008) states that discussing the issues underlying the suicide will make the reader feel more sympathetic towards the person involved by giving them the opportunity to experience events from their perspective. In encouraging readers to place themselves in the victim’s shoes, Mind hopes that positive change will come about in public opinions surrounding mental health and in government policies for vulnerable people in society.
- Media organisations should avoid over-simplifying the causes thought to have lead to the suicide as this over-simplification could lead to inaccurate views on the event.
The Samaritans (2013) write that, in simplifying someone’s decision to take their own life, readers are encouraged to see suicide as a straightforward decision, rather than the complex decision that it is.
- Media organisations should avoid being explicit about the method used during a suicide.
Mind’s (2008) guidelines state that details such as the type or amount of medication used during a suicide while The Samaritans’ (2012) guidelines state that media organisations should take care about the level of detail they go into when reporting on a suicide. These details would not only be inappropriate for media organisations to publish, but they would also put vulnerable people in society at risk by providing them with a method of suicide that they may not have considered before.
- Suicide or self-harming should not be presented as the appropriate solution.
Mind (2008) states that discussing suicide or self-harm as a solution to whatever problems may be taking place endorses them as a positive coping strategy, making it more likely than people will adopt these methods themselves when placed in difficult circumstances.
- Suicide should not be described as “quick”, “easy”, “painless” or “certain to result in death”.
The Samaritans (2013) state that describing any method of suicide in this manner will make it more likely that people will attempt these methods themselves as they will see them as straightforward and successful way of ending their own lives.
- Care should be taken about the positioning of stories about suicide in media publications.
The Samaritans (2013) suggests that giving a story regarding suicide prominence in a media publication “may unduly influence vulnerable people” by suggesting that their death will gain them more attention.
- Media organisations should avoid reporting on celebrities who self-harm.
Mind (2008) reports that people often view celebrities as role models and, therefore, will be more likely to adopt behaviours that celebrities are seen to endorse. In refraining from publishing details about celebrities self-harming, media organisations can help avoid glamorising self-harm and propagating its use in society.
- Media organisation should avoid publishing images of self-harming or suicide notes.
Mind (2008) state that including images such as these can not only glamorise self-harming and suicide, but that they can also serve as guidance for vulnerable people who can use suicide notes to justify their own attempts.
- Media organisations should avoid using the term ‘commit suicide’ when reporting on cases of suicide.
Mind (2008) argues that the verb ‘commit’ implies judgement and persecution as it is commonly associated with criminality. Therefore, in associating suicide with crime, media organisations are encouraging their readers to see suicide as something that should be punished and not mourned.
- Media organisations should be avoid referring to ‘unsuccessful’ suicide attempts.
In their guidelines, Mind (2008) writes that phrases such as these “attributes feelings of achievement or failure to taking one’s own life”. The Samaritans (2013) write that paying careful attention to the language used when discussing cases of suicide could help media organisations achieve balanced coverage and reduce the distress of their readers.
Why Media Organisations Should Include Explicit Details
While some media organisations have been quick to adopt the guidelines set forward by Mind and The Samaritans, not all organisations have taken them on board. LA Times journalist, Andrew Klavan, argues that the journalist’s job is to tell the whole story, whether it is pleasant or not and establishing guidelines such as the ones listed above only serves to restrict the freedom that the media prides themselves on.
To explain his views, Klavan (2014, online source) discusses a story he was previously involved in where a teenage boy was found dead in his local community. Whilst researching the story, Klavan discovered that he had died as a result of suicide and, although he initially included this information in his report, before the story could be published, Klavan received a telephone call from the boy’s mother, asking him to refrain from mention how her son died. Torn between his commitment to journalism and ethics, Klavan passed the mother’s request on to his editor. Although his editor sympathised with the boy’s mother, she eventually disregarded the request and published the story with the cause of the boy’s death in tact, sparking a debate between herself and her writer.
During this debate, Klavan (2014, online source) argued that the details surrounding the boy’s death should have been withheld out of compassion. However, whilst the editor acknowledged his point-of-view, she explained that it was important for the journalist to tell the whole story as, often, these events reflected the plight of society as a whole. Therefore, it was important for publish this information so people were educated about the reality of the real world.
These arguments are ones that Klavan (2014, online source) endorses himself, stating that:
It is not a journalist’s job to protect us from the ugly facts. Neither is it his job to protect the sensitive from the painful truth or anyone, really, from anything.
Klavan (2014, online source) argues that it is not the role of the media to make the world a better place or to promote positive ways of thinking. Therefore, media organisations should not withhold unpleasant information from the public to adhere to guidelines set forth by charities and organisation as following these guidelines will not prevent unpleasant events from happening.
Reporting unpleasant events, in Klavan’s (2014, online source) eyes, is in the public interest as it informs them of important issues and events that are affecting society. Keeping the public informed about these issues allows them to be better informed about the struggles of daily life as well as how best to overcome them.
Overall, Klavan (2014, online source) states that it is important to provide explicit detail about suicides as:
In the greater scheme of things, Williams’ suicide is a small story, but it is part of a bigger story: the story of our country and our world. That story unfolds only slowly, and no one knows what wisdom it will ultimately reveal. The best we can do is tell each chapter whole and true, without piety or fear or favor. The best we can do is journalism.
Why Media Organisations Shouldn’t Include Explicit Details:
On the other side of the fence are those people who feel that media organisations should withhold explicit information from their publications in order to safeguard society.
In their media guidelines, The Samaritans (2013, online source) state that “Language matters”, highlighting that the words used to refer to and discuss cases of suicide can often have a profound effect on readers. Unsurprisingly, the group The Samaritans report are most affected by reports of suicide are young people who are “especially vulnerable to negative suicide coverage” (The Samaritans, 2013, online source). These findings indicate that, while it can be argued that the media should have their own freedom protected, it is also just as important to protect those exposed to the media.
Sarah Boseley (2014, online source) argues that providing explicit details about suicide in the media could be dangerous for vulnerable members of society as it not only presents them with methods of ending their own life. Boseley goes on to state that people diagnosed with depression may not necessarily have the information they would need in order to end their own lives. However, publishing this information in the media means that new methods become readily accessible to depression patients.
Boseley (2014, online source) also argues that media coverage can also serve to glamorise suicide and mental health conditions by suggesting that a celebrity may not have been as much of a success as they had been without their illness or death. As is often the case, Boseley states that media organisations will often glamorise the life or talents of a celebrity who has died as a result of suicide. This glamorisation will often shed a positive light on mental health issues or suicide until they become desirable, increasing the chances that people commit suicide in order to immortalise themselves.
These theories were demonstrated during a series of teenage suicides in Bridgend, Wales in the early 2000s where it was argued that the extent of the media coverage on these suicides resulted in even more teenagers taking their own lives. Evidence such as this raises the suggestion that media outlets should consider the impact they have on society at large as Boseley (2014, online source) states that publishing explicit details about suicide offers “a green light to those who are contemplating ending their own lives.”
Although media publications surrounding suicides are not common, it is still important to consider the impact that their coverage in the media will have on society at large. Research by The Samaritans (2013, online source) states that working closely with media organisations has had a positive impact on society as people are now more likely to seek help when they need it. In countries where responsible reporting took place, there was a positive effect on national suicide prevention strategies, demonstrating just how susceptible individuals are to media coverage and, therefore, how important it is for media organisations to monitor how they cover stories surrounding suicide.
The Samaritans (2013, online source) are keen to stress that they are not condemning the media for their actions. Instead, they believe that the media can be used as a force for good in raising awareness of suicide in order to help vulnerable members of society. As the research above demonstrates, “when the media has applied caution in the reporting of suicide, there have been positive outcomes, potentially reducing the number of deaths.”
Boseley, S. (2014) ‘Robin Williams death: media has duty to report suicide responsibly’. The Guardian. 13th August. [Online Source] Available at: <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/13/robin-williams-media-report-suicide> Accessed 16.11.2014.
Klavan, A. (2014) ‘Report the truth – the whole truth – on Robin Williams’ death’. Los Angeles Times. 19th August. [Online Source] Available at: <http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-robin-williams-details-of-death-20140819-story.html> Accessed 16.11.2014.
Mind (2008) ‘Reporting Suicide and Self-Harm’ [Online Source] Available at: <http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/node/75408> Accessed 16.11.2014
The Samaritans (2013) ‘Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide’. [Online Source] Available at: <http://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines-reporting-suicide> Accessed 16.11.2014.