Media coverage of suicide

In February this year 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenna Parry became the seventeenth young person to commit suicide near the town of Bridgend in Wales. Local police attributed many of the deaths to social networking websites, but claimed that the young people of the area blamed the media attention of the first couple of suicides for a majority of the following deaths, saying “They were all young people with big issues. There are a constellation of factors influencing these young people. Young people tell us that the media coverage is starting to contribute to those pressures”. The parents of one of the young boys who had taken his own life pleaded with the media to quell their coverage of the suicides after their son Nathaniel lost this battle for life in hospital after committing suicide a week before Jenna Parry’s death. They claimed that the media not only influenced their son in his decision, but that the coverage of his death added to their grief in the wake of his death (The Sydney morning Herald Website, 20th February 2008, ‘Copycat Suicide’ Another Teen Dies). 

Media Matters because the topics covered in the media and the way in which they are handled can be a matter of life and death for many impressionable media consumers. If a person is already in a delicate frame of mind and contemplating suicide, detailed coverage or graphic images used in news reports could be the final push they need to take their own life. Because people now have 24-hour access to the news and media, and so much of the information on the Internet is uncensored, people are party to a lot more information that they used to be. While this has distinct advantages, it often leads to people viewing things they shouldn’t.

Research carried out in the United States between 1973 and 1979 proved the link between media coverage of suicide and the number of teenagers who took their own lives in the days after the reports. It also showed that the numbers rose even further when more stations picked up on the story. The reports not only led to increased levels of suicides but also copycat suicides (Phillip & Carstensen, 1986, L Clustering of teenage suicides after television news stories about suicide). This raises difficult questions about how suicide should be covered in the media or whether it should be discussed at all.

Suicide contagion occurs mainly among young people. This is when a person tries to imitate a suicide they have learned about in the media, often copying the act down to the method they use. “Suicide Contagion is more likely to occur when the individual contemplating suicide is of the same age, gender and background as the person who died” (Boyd (2007) page 262 4th edition). Suicide contagion raises some moral questions for journalists, especially when reporting on high profile suicides such as the death of a celebrity or public figure. Celebrity deaths are fourteen times more likely to lead to copycat suicides than any other, but the dilemma is that they also receive a lot more media coverage because of he victim’s status  (Laurance 2003 Celebrity suicides `likely to inspire copycats) In research carried out by conducting 42 real world studies of the impact of media coverage of suicides, it was found that stories of a non-famous person were 4 times more likely to generate a copycat suicide than if they hadn’t been covered at all (Stack (2002) Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide). Because of this many believe that coverage of suicide does more harm than good. After the mysterious death of singer Kurt Cobain in 1994 police never determined whether or not his death was actually the result of suicide. His death resulted in 68 known copycat suicides by dedicated fans who not only lived for the singer, but wanted to die like him too (CBS News, April 6th 2004, Kurt Cobain: Not A Suicide?).

Media interest groups such as The Media Wise Trust have campaigned for journalists to be responsible about portraying suicide. In 2007 they published a leaflet consisting of work from the National Institute for Mental Health in England after research by the Centre for Suicide Research once again proved the link between media coverage and suicide. Their aim was to work with the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists to “Develop guidelines and a set of training modules to help media practitioners appreciate how their approach to coverage might save lives” (The Media Wise Trust, 2007, Page 5, Sensitive Coverage Saves Lives Improving media portrayal of suicidal behaviour).

The rise of the Internet has created a revolution in the way people can access information. As the Internet is virtually lawless however, it means that websites generating negative messages are allowed to be broadcast. Sites such as pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia campaigns and racist websites are allowed to run unmonitored.

In November 2002, Tim Piper, a sixteen year old school student from Chippenham took his own life after researching advice on the internet about the best methods of committing suicide (BBC News Website, 15th November 2003, Surfing for Suicide). His is one of the growing number of tragic stories emerging as more and more people are falling prey to internet suicide pacts, webcam suicides and websites which advise people on the best methods of ending their own lives.

The first reported case of an Internet suicide was in October 2000 in Japan when a suicide pact was made online between a group of young people (New Prophecy, April 24, 2007, Internet Death Pacts Increasing Worldwide). Since this case hundreds of young people have arranged similar pacts over the Internet, bringing a threat into people’s homes they may not even realise is there. In Japan alone it is thought over 30,000 people commit suicide every year, making theirs the highest suicide rate in the industrialised world, a study from the Japanese government indicated that one in five people in Japan have seriously considered taking their own lives at some point (Hogg, October 6th 2008, Downturn stirs Japan suicide fears) with many of these deaths being attributed to internet suicide rings and chat rooms. Some feel that more responsible reporting by magazine, newspaper and television journalists and greater care when publishing annual statistics will prevent many of these deaths (Internet Suicide Japan, Counseling Japan, 2005 newsletter #1).

During an investigation into the phenomenon, the BBC uncovered what they described as “a growing, and morbidly frank underworld of chat rooms and websites with names like “Suicide Club”, where thousands of (mainly young) people meet and talk and plan their deaths” (Harding, 2004, Japan’s Internet ‘Suicide Clubs’. A). They discovered comments from people on message boards and forums advertising for others to meet up with them so they can commit suicide together. The worrying thing is that the people involved don’t seem to grasp the gravity of the situation, for many it is just a morbid fantasy rather than a method of escape, and it seems they are confusing the virtual world with the real world, where if you die, there is no second chance. Interviewee Naoki Tachiwana told the reporter “Well, I’m depressed – and that’s a disease…But to be honest, I think I’ve always been interested in killing myself.” (Harding, 2004, Japan’s Internet ‘Suicide Clubs’. B).

This worrying underworld of suicide fascination has led to many young people broadcasting their suicides on the internet and inviting others to watch. The most prominent case at the moment is the story of teenager Abraham Biggs. On the 20th of November, Biggs posted a comment inviting people to watch him kill himself live on camera by taking a cocktail of prescription medicines. 100 people logged on to watch and many encouraged him telling him to hurry up and get it over with. Many believed it was a hoax until some time later they witnessed the police breaking into his room and discovering his body before covering the camera (Stelter, 2008, New York Times Website – A). According to Professor Jeffrey Cole of the Univertisy of California Online communities “are like the crowd outside the building with the guy on the ledge…Sometimes there is someone who gets involved and tries to talk him down. Often the crowd chants, ‘Jump, jump.’ They can enable suicide or help prevent it” (Stelter, 2008, New York Times Website – B).

A recent study showed that one of the most common methods of suicide in recent times is the use of prescription and illicit drugs. It also showed that those who partake of illicit drugs are up to 25% more likely to commit suicide (Cohen, February 19th 2008, The New York Times). One of the most high profile news stories about suicide this year was the death of actor Heath Ledger by a suspected deliberate overdose. It was never determined whether his death was accidental or not, but as quickly as the news broke, the actor’s family pleaded with the media not to discuss it as a suicide. Despite this suicide was mentioned in a majority of the news reports about the star’s death. Even though the results of his autopsy had not been released, a huge number of newspapers mentioned suicide when reporting about Ledger’s death, even if it was just alluding to the fact that it was a suspected suicide. The New York Times reported that no suicide note had been left at the scene where his body was discovered despite the very headline for the article stating that autopsy results had so far been incnvlusive (Newman, Baker. January 24th 2008. The New York Times). On the 27th of February 2008 The New York Times published an article about Heath Ledgers death, chronicling the deaths of previous celebrities who had comitted suicide. While it was never directly stated that Ledger himself committed suicide, mentioning the suicides of three other stars was a clear hint as to the opinion of the paper about how he died (Bader, January 27th 2008, The New York Times)

This put the notion of suicide into people’s minds when it wasn’t necessary or even in good taste. What these facts show is that while the media are not to blame for a majority of suicides, responsible reporting and careful censorship could prevent many unnecessary deaths. The language journalists use can have a dramatic effect on how the story is perceived, this is also one of the easiest changes to make to work towards responsible and sensitive reporting. Referring to suicide attempts as being either failed or successful as the person’s death is, in people’s eyes, not a success. Referring to people as being mad, crazy or insane by means of an insult can be upsetting for people suffering from a mental illness. Printing details of how a person committed suicide can give people ideas about how they might kill themselves, this can lead to copycat suicides (Headline, 2008, Examples of Negative Reporting). The media have a responsibility to report information as accurately and fairly as possible. This can be difficult in the early days in the aftermath of a suicide when details are unclear, but when history repeats itself so many times and with such detrimental results, careful regulation of media coverage would be a logical step. Even starting with simple changes such as using different language or terminology, or omitting illicit details from a suicide report, journalists can take the first steps towards lowering suicide rates and ensuring that there is always responsible coverage of a difficult issue.

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About Jane Ward

I’m finally getting around to updating this section. I’m a recent Journalism graduate, and love flexing my writing muscles by updating this blog. I’ve had a fair bit of work published in a number of publications including student magazines and also in the national press. This blog isn’t the most serious one in the world as you may have noticed, it’s mostly for fun but I do try and post as much serious work as I can. More recently I’ve been involved in music journalism as it’s always been a passion of mine. I’m always open to submissions so if you have a demo or anything you’d like reviewed or previewed I’ll gladly post something. Hope you enjoy the blog
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One Response to Media coverage of suicide

  1. Congrats from a genius to one other.

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