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A screen-grab from one of the videos in the It Gets Better series. (It Gets Better)
A screen-grab from one of the videos in the It Gets Better series. (It Gets Better)

media

How the taboo against reporting on suicide met its end Add to ...

News outlets, including The Globe and Mail, have used the bullying issue to try to explain why young people are still being driven to kill themselves. Suicide notes are being published in their entirety alongside photos of young victims, and reporters attend funerals and write obituaries of those driven to suicide.

Suicide coverage in North America has always been a delicate subject. While papers once reported suicide with the same vigour afforded high-profile murders, attitudes changed in the 1970s after a research paper determined that the number of suicides in Detroit decreased while the local newspaper was on strike and then spiked again when publication resumed.

Opinion became further entrenched after an Austrian study showed that sensational coverage of subway suicides led to more subway suicides. Reporters were put through sensitivity training and papers changed their policies on covering the subject.

“The media complied with guidelines and the suicide rate decreased by as much as 75 per cent by way of subway,” the Canadian Psychiatric Association concluded in its own report on suicide and the media. “The importance of continuous monitoring of the media cannot be underscored enough for suicide prevention.”

The professionals haven't changed their minds, even if editors have. Jitender Sareen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, helped to draft a series of guidelines for newsrooms in covering suicide.

Prof. Sareen encourages journalists to write about themes that might be associated with teen suicide – such as poverty and mental health – but he maintains that any coverage that identifies those who took their lives and delves into a person's particular situation oversimplifies the issue and could lead to a spike in the number of suicide attempts in a community.

“The evidence of contagion in this age group is pretty consistent,” he says. “I don't think the kind of reporting that focuses on the individual with multiple reports around the case is a good idea. The purpose is good at heart – the media is trying to make change and bring the issues to the public. But it's the old adage of first not doing any harm.”

While the idea of “doing no harm” is a medical concept, journalists are trained to tell the story through the most compelling means possible – finding human narratives to bring alive abstract themes such as mental health and poverty – and few storylines or questions are as compelling as what drives a young person to take his or her own life.

Like journalists, the professionals face another issue they had not anticipated: In several of the most high-profile cases over the past two years, coverage has been generated by families who approach the news media with press releases and copies of handwritten suicide notes in the hope of attaching additional meaning to their child's lives and generating public debate.

Parents such as Eric Windeler have set up foundations in their children's names to help raise awareness and try and prevent further suicides. (The Jack Project commemorates Mr. Windeler's son, who killed himself in 2010 while attending Queen's University.)

“Families have decided they won't be quiet and I know there were discussions in newsrooms about the long taboo,” said Janice Neil, a journalism professor at Ryerson University. “You almost would have thought it was written in law. When families started requesting publicity to raise awareness and do fundraising then the organizations wondered why they were being silent.”

But while Mr. Windeler has been quoted in news stories, he has grown increasingly reluctant to put himself in the spotlight because of the way the media focus on individuals' narratives rather than underlying causes. “When I do agree to talk, there are things I like to stay away from and let professionals handle,” he said, adding that he insists that reporters avoid terms such as “committed suicide” or reach for easy answers. “Some of the coverage has been pretty simplistic.”

Slick campaigns such as It Gets Better are not without critics, who charge that any message of hope that revolves around a specific cause of suicides – bullying, for example – is a step in the wrong direction because it ignores so many other factors that might contribute.

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