Covering suicide with care
On Friday, December 9, 2011, The Globe and Mail published a story called “How the taboo on reporting suicide met its end,” regarding journalistic coverage of teen suicide. The article looked at the pros of suicide news coverage, including the ability for such stories to raise awareness. But there were also cons, including the potential for such stories to actually increase suicide rates, and the oversimplification of suicide by attributing its cause to single factors, such as bullying.
The author, Steve Ladurantaye, writes:
“Canadian newsrooms have been averse to covering suicides for decades, deferring to medical studies that suggest publicizing suicide results is “contagion” – the idea that stories about young people killing themselves lead to more young people killing themselves and should be avoided.
“But in the past few years journalists have taken their cues from celebrities and parents-turned-advocates who have created a cottage industry out of suicide awareness.”
While there has been a shift in the “no suicide coverage” rule among journalists and news organizations, oversimplification in suicide stories in the name of succinct journalism still persists. By suggesting that a single cause—be it bullying or a sudden tragedy—is at the root of suicide, it’s easy to neglect the underlying mental-health issues that may exist as well. As a result, mental health concerns—arguably as pressing as obesity and heart disease—are deemed abnormal, and thus, shameful. Legitimizing physical illnesses and stigmatizing mental ones is a facet of suicide coverage that needs to change.
For example, a news story about rising obesity rates may be followed by a story on the need for a more comprehensive public health-care plan, and a lighter story about weight loss tips. Suicide can be covered in a similar way, perhaps by publishing related stories about the state of psychiatric health care in Canada, or a lifestyle piece on making mental health “check ups” a routine part of healthy living.
Standardizing the media’s approach to suicide—a topic that has long been viewed as taboo—may very well be the first step in accepting a population whose reality has been notoriously underreported.