Overriding criticism that the proposed rules are out of date in the era of social media, Vancouver school trustees have voted in favour of holding news organizations to prescribed guidelines when covering teen suicides.
The Vancouver School Board will now write to the BC Press Council and the provincial and national associations of broadcasters, calling on them to “adopt and ensure province-wide adherence” to the guidelines.
Drawn up in 2008 by the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the guidelines are designed to play down suicide coverage in order to decrease the risk of copycat incidents among already troubled youths. They urge the media to avoid photos of the deceased, using the word “suicide” in headlines, putting such stories on the front page, and excessive, simplistic coverage that may romanticize reasons for committing suicide.
The school board’s move was triggered by the torrent of media coverage that followed the suicide earlier this fall of Port Coquitlam teenager Amanda Todd. A distressing, heartbreaking video posted by Ms. Todd a month before she died, outlining a litany of physical and online bullying, was viewed by millions of people around the world.
VSB chair Patti Bacchus, alarmed by what she has called “no holds barred” reporting of Ms. Todd’s suicide, said trustees, at the very least, hope to launch a discussion of proper coverage “so we don’t run the risk of making already tragic situations worse.”
The vote was not unanimous. Veteran trustee Ken Denike was one of three board members to oppose the resolution.
“The pervasive power of social media trumps the influence of the mainstream media,” Mr. Denike said Tuesday. “These guidelines go back to 2008. They rely on things at least a decade old. They are out-moded, out of date.”
Mr. Denike agreed there is a place for media guidelines. “But they’re the same as they’ve been for a hundred years: good taste and common sense.”
Some media experts have also criticized the CPA guidelines as unrealistic in the age of Facebook and Twitter.
The CPA is currently reviewing the guidelines. But their co-author, Laurence Katz, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, said in an interview that they are unlikely to be changed in a major way.
They are still relevant, Dr. Katz insisted, pointing to numerous studies that clearly identify a risk of similar incidents when suicides attain a high media profile. “Of course we understand the impact of social media, but the mainstream media can add to the risk, because of its credibility and extent of its coverage.” Displaying the deceased’s photo, for instance, may lead a vulnerable youth to identify with the victim. “They may think, ‘She’s just like me’ … When you personalize the story, you heighten the impact, and that increases the risk.”
Although disturbed by some of the reporting on Amanda Todd’s death, Dr. Katz said he was not suggesting such events be ignored. “Reporters have to find a balance. I think it’s great that the school board is drawing attention to the risks.”
Kathleen Cross, assistant communications professor at Simon Fraser University, was also supportive of the board. She said the mainstream media still has much more impact than social media, because it is accountable and organized, adding that she, too, was perturbed by some of the coverage of Amanda Todd.
“There was a lot of ink, and not a lot of depth. There was a bit of sensationalization. It had the effect of glamourizing [what happened], and that’s very dangerous for other youths at risk,” Ms. Cross said.
Ken Kilcullen, president of the BC Association of Broadcasters, said most of the industry was not very aware of the CPA guidelines. “We have our own broadcaster guidelines on the issues of sensitivity and privacy.” But he welcomed the opportunity for dialogue.“We are very sensitive to the issue of suicide, but in this instance, the person affected went so public in a medium that has no rules. That’s where the debate is.”