July 3, 2022, Sunday
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Why is it important not to sensationalize suicide related news reports?

The Nepal Weekly
September 14, 2021

World Mental Health Day

The media plays an important role in shaping children and young people’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to issues such as mental health and suicide. Different studies backed with evidence, show that the nature of media coverage on these issues may shape the attitude and perception of young people. One of the key concerns in this regard is “suicide contagion”, where vulnerable children and young people – those already suffering mental illness or with suicidal tendencies – could potentially be pushed into imitative or copycat behaviors after reading/seeing news reports on suicide.

This risk is found to be particularly heightened when the reporting is too extensive; too prominent or sensationalist; or too graphic or overly descriptive of methods used and other details. It is important to understand that the act of suicide cannot be attributed to a single cause alone, but rather a combination of different, complex factors. The media, through more thoughtful and sensitive reporting, could help expand public discourse around this significant public health issue, reduce stigma, and raise awareness among audiences about the different factors involved, and even encourage those at risk and their families to seek help. Here are some tips which may prove useful to journalists reporting on mental health issues and suicide, while minimizing the possibility of any additional harm that the coverage might cause.

Tip 1: Avoid sensationalism Oftentimes: Stories of suicide are considered very “newsworthy” and featured prominently in the media. This is particularly the case when it comes to the death of a well-known person or celebrity by suicide. But this tendency to glamorize or romanticize such deaths – such as references to grief-stricken loved ones or fans, images of memorials and ceremonies, and retrospective descriptions that paint the person in an adoring, reverential light – can have unintended impacts on a person who is already struggling with suicidal thoughts. The more they learn about the person in the story, the more young people might identify with them, and begin to see suicide as an acceptable way to cope with pain and difficulties.

Tip 2: Avoid unnecessary detail: Media professionals need to take great care with the level of detail they use in depicting the person who has died or the manner in which the death has taken place. Providing explicit descriptions of the method used in the suicide is particularly risky in that it could very well offer a guide for vulnerable people to imitate the act. This is especially true if the method of suicide is new – specifying could draw unwarranted attention to it and encourage people to try it for themselves.

Tip 3: Mind your language: The words used to cover suicide carry a lot of weight in terms of affecting how people – especially children and youth – perceive of the act. For instance, mental health experts often argue that the term “committed suicide” should be avoided since the word “committed” brings to it a criminal connotation, thereby risking stigmatizing suicide and potentially discouraging vulnerable people from seeking help. Reports should also avoid deeming a suicide “successful/unsuccessful” or a “failed attempt”, since these imply that death is a desirable goal. Rather, phrases like “completed suicide”, “ended their life” or “died by suicide” are preferable. When talking about suicide as a larger phenomenon, it is better to use words like “rise” or “increase” instead of “epidemic” or “skyrocketing” – the latter tends to sensationalize the issue.

Tip 4: Avoid dangerous oversimplifications: There is a tendency in media reports to oversimply deaths by suicide by blaming a single factor or event – whether it is a failed exam, a relationship problem or online bullying. While these most certainly have an impact on a person’s state-of-mind, suicide is more often the result of a complex mix of factors, not just one. It is too simplistic and even dangerous to attribute the death to a single cause, firstly, because it gives the impression of the suicide being a means of coping with problems – again, potentially leading to copycat behaviour. Secondly, this kind of shallow coverage does not serve to educate or raise awareness amongst audiences about the root causes of the problem, namely mental health issues, and the need to recognize warning signs in time.

Tip 5: Respect privacy: Media coverage should keep personal details about the person who died to a minimum – no identifying details if the person is under 18 – out of respect to both the person concerned and the grieving family and loved ones. These loved ones will likely be going through a great deal of distress and confusion at this time, and could potentially be vulnerable to risk of self-harm themselves. Publishing graphic images, sensationalist accounts and conjecture about why the person took his/her life, can serve to exacerbate this vulnerability. Journalists should also deeply deliberate over whether it is necessary to interview the bereaved, whose shock and grief might hamper their ability to make the best decisions on what to reveal during these conversations and could say or do things they later regret. Instead of limiting their sources to police or first responders – which is generally the case – journalists should also interview mental health and suicide prevention experts for more helpful information to include in the story Rather than oversimplifying and sensationalizing the issue, news reports should seek to provide accurate facts on mental health problems, reduce stigma and promote help-seeking behaviour.

Links to helplines, useful resources and organizations that provide mental health support services should be part of the story. Additionally, coverage of stories of people who have returned from the brink, recovered and learned to cope through treatment, can help to show children and young people that suicide is not the solution and that there are other options if they reach out. A matter of saving lives Reporting on suicide is challenging, no doubt. Journalists must make difficult judgement calls in deciding which details to retain in their stories – they must constantly ask themselves if that particular detail is absolutely necessary to the public’s information needs, always consider the harm it might cause in terms of encouraging someone to their life, and be prepared to justify any inclusion they do decide to make. Ultimately, they must remember that the act of reporting should not put anyone – including children and young people – at the risk of additional harm, and to ensure that their dignity and rights are always respected. (Courtesy: UNICEF, Nepal)