In the late 1990s, as a communications director for the B.C. Children’s Commission, an office that investigated child deaths, I worked with journalists covering suicide. For the most part, stories about suicide were thoughtful, although, occasionally, editors and I would disagree. In my experience, editors could be persuaded to end sensational coverage when the risk of copycat suicides was explained.
I was shocked by the extensive, continuing coverage of Amanda Todd. Much of the coverage – repeated images, simplistic explanations of why she took her life – broke every suicide prevention best-practice guideline for media coverage.
The media landscape has changed in the past 10 years. What hasn’t changed is the harm caused by sensational coverage of suicide. The World Health Organization first published evidence-based media guidelines for reporting suicide in 1999, and the evidence has continued to grow since then. Fifty-two studies from 1967 to 2011 found that sensational media coverage can be a factor in fatal and non-fatal suicide behaviour.
It’s a new crowd – social media – that has transformed the landscape and intensified competition. I understand the struggle for mainstream media to respond, but joining the pack with sensational coverage of a suicide sends a message that the story is more valuable than minimizing harm to people dealing with mental health issues.
Social media or not, the best practices for reporting suicide are the same.
Mainstream media are still the main force in framing societal debate, including debates that happen through social media. The Pew Research Center shows that, even though overall newspaper audiences have decreased, they still have a central role in framing debate and setting the news agenda.
Suicide should be discussed in the media, both mainstream and social. The issue is how to talk about it, so as not to make vulnerable people even more so.
Mainstream media can play a leading role in destigmatizing mental health problems. There’s still a stigma to mental illness that makes it hard for people to seek help. Media outlets can assist us all in moving beyond outdated thinking about mental health, but there’s a lot of work to do. Rob Whitley, an assistant professor at McGill University, looked at 10,000 Canadian news reports on mental illness. He found that 85 per cent of these stories did not include the voice of a person with a mental illness or a mental health expert. Forty per cent connected mental illness with crime, violence and criminality.
Media can also go beyond portraying children’s lives like an adultless Lord of the Flies island. We need to discuss how young people learn about bullying and empathy from the way adults treat them and each other. We need to discuss what support is needed for young people to be healthy and care about the well-being of others. We need to have conversations about the sexualization of girls and violence toward them. We need coverage that highlights young people who have recovered from mental illness or maintain fulfilling lives with mental illness.
Asking journalists to follow guidelines that might lessen the chance of someone acting on suicidal thoughts isn’t draconian. It isn’t a request to end discussion about suicide in the media. It’s a request that professional journalists use their pivotal role to open discussions, sometimes uncomfortable ones, rather than avoiding them.
Michelle Stack is an associate professor of educational studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on media, youth, educational leadership and policy.
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