Perturbed by news coverage of the death of Amanda Todd and an alleged “suicide pact” among local native youth, the Vancouver School Board is calling for media organizations to adopt a set of restrictive rules when reporting future suicides.
A motion to be considered Monday by the VSB urges the BC Press Council and Canadian Association of Broadcasters to ensure “province-wide adherence” to suicide-coverage guidelines recommended by the Canadian Psychiatric Association.
The guidelines include avoiding such practices as using photos of the deceased, putting the word “suicide” in newspaper headlines, running the story on the front page, “repetitive or excessive” coverage and presenting “simplistic” reasons for the suicide.
The recommendations are based on fears that excessive publicity given to high-profile suicides such as that of Amanda Todd increases the risk of copycat cases among already troubled young people, VSB chair Patti Bacchus said on Sunday.
“There really seemed to be a lot of no-holds-barred reporting [on Amanda Todd]. It made me feel uncomfortable,” Ms. Bacchus said. “It seems that everyone felt this pressure to be covering the story in some way, without pausing to reflect about a possible downside. Was there any danger to what they were doing?”
She was also critical of some media for referring to a recent alleged “suicide pact” among 30 native youths, when that was merely the number in a Facebook discussion of the matter.
Amanda Todd, a 15-year old Port Coquitlam high-school student, committed suicide earlier this fall, weeks after posting a heart-breaking video on YouTube detailing the protracted bullying she had experienced from some schoolmates. Millions of people around the world viewed the video, sparking intense public interest in the tragedy.
Ms. Bacchus acknowledged that social media, which spearheaded the prominence of Amanda’s suicide, have changed the rules of the game, but suggested that, at the very least, mainstream media should pause and reflect more on the impact of their coverage, rather than blindly succumb to the pressure of round-the-clock, instant news coverage.
The VSB’s action was supported by Theresa Campbell, manager of Safe Schools for the Surrey School District.
Since the barrage of publicity over Amanda, Ms. Campbell said she and others have been kept busy dealing with students fixated on suicide and self-harm. “Many of them are referencing Amanda Todd, so I can see first hand the impact that this has had.”
Amanda’s mother, Carol, however, told The Globe and Mail in an interview that she is conflicted on the issue.
“I’m torn. The news was plastered everywhere, and everyone got obsessed with my daughter. Some still are,” Ms. Todd said, adding that, except for speaking with the Vancouver Sun, she avoided feeding into the media frenzy over Amanda’s video and suicide.
But as the matter has evolved, Ms. Todd said she has welcomed the chance to use the tragedy as a teaching tool, noting carefully that Amanda had mental-health issues as well as being a victim of bullying.
“I don’t want mental health to be swept under a carpet,” she said. “If we keep hiding it, kids aren’t going to talk about it, and their parents won’t talk about it, either.”
As for the chance of copycat incidents, Ms. Todd said teens at risk were in trouble before – and remain in trouble after – Amanda’s death. “Of course I’m concerned about that, but now that the issues are being talked about more, there is more chance they will receive some support, and the way to get the message out is through the media.”
She said the media’s coverage was one of those plus-minus issues. “It’s not win-win, or lose-lose. In the end, it’s how you handle it.”
Ross Howard, who teaches journalism ethics at Langara College, said the proposed guidelines have no place in today’s fast-changing, social-media world.
“Sure, media coverage goes overboard, as it does on almost any story involving human tragedy,” Mr. Howard said. “And yes, the CPA guidelines are well-intentioned. But they are far too unrealistic in the age of Facebook and the new media, with a thousand sources.”
Sanitizing media coverage of suicides does almost as little good as a much earlier media practice of not reporting them at all, he said.
How could anyone expect the media, say, to remove the word “suicide” from a headline about Amanda Todd’s death, Mr. Howard observed. “That’s what the story is about.”
Ms. Bacchus, meanwhile, said she hopes the school board’s move will trigger media discussion on how best to cover suicides. “The guidelines don’t suggest there be no airing of the issue. They’re basically saying: Just be careful. Weigh the risk to other young people. Suicide is complex.”