With the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons this week, it is important to think of the media’s role in covering these incidents. Journalists understand this is a story about allegations of violence and sexual assault against a young woman and also the pile-on cyberbullying that followed. They have an important role during these public tragedies to find out what happened, to ask questions of the police, the political leaders and others, and to let the wider society understand the relentless nature of cyberbullying.
While the way teenagers are bullied has changed (and frankly has become much worse), bullying is not new. What is new is that the media is writing about it and shining a light on the issue. André Picard, The Globe’s health columnist, gave a speech last October to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. He said at that time: “Public policy is, to a perverse degree, influenced by media coverage. If the media turn a blind eye to the epidemic of suicide, and fail to explore the solutions, then politicians and policy makers will do so, too. It is not enough to have documents like suicide strategies. Those plans must also be given life. Their necessity and their implementation must be hammered home at every occasion.”
I would add that the opposite is also true. That if the media turn their attention to an issue, the politicians and policy makers are compelled to respond and hopefully to act.
Earlier this week, Globe senior editor Martina Blaskovic and I sent a note out to staff reminding them of the power of language in reporting such stories. The same note was sent last December after the death of Amanda Todd.
We reminded staff that they should avoid writing “committed suicide.” This is a throwback to when suicide was considered a crime. Instead say “died by suicide” or “attempted suicide.”
We also said that a suicide should not be called successful or unsuccessful. And Globe staff should avoid a description of the method unless it is very public or relevant.
The most important note was to show sensitivity to the family members and to all those close to the person who has died.
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