Media reporting of celebrity-related deaths is voyeuristic and over the top, as the recent Viveka Babajee case showed. Isn't it time television channels and newspapers re-examined how they report celeb suicides?
A suicide is story, a celebrity suicide a bigger story. There is no getting away from that. And the resulting overkill in coverage is not related to India's current media saturation, or the swamping of the public sphere by competing satellite channels. Celebrity-related stories of crime, death, suicide have always been news. Back in 1986 in the case of theatre director B.V. Karanth's involvement in a Bhopal incident where actor Vibha Mishra was found ablaze, I vividly recall a colleague at the Indian Express complaining about the pressure being put on the Bhopal reporter by one of the paper's senior editors to keep getting more on every possible salacious angle, so that the paper could continue front paging a story that had the arts world agog.
But media voyeurism destroys lives, so there is a need to step back after every overkill and examine whether things can be differently handled.
Media coverage of celebrity suicides has two types of negative repercussions. One is the impact of the coverage on those close to the victim, or associated with her. The most recent example was when a Mumbai-based model Viveka Babajee killed herself last month, leaving a suicide note blaming a man she was seeing as being responsible for her death. The person mentioned became fodder for the media in no time, and his family and associates with him. They have to wait till journalists lose interest to recover their privacy.
You cannot change the way media will react when they see a celebrity suicide any more than you can change the way a dog will react when it sees a meaty bone. The men and women with mikes and cameras are highly unlikely to say, oh dear, let us not invade privacy. But others can do their bit to stem the feeding frenzy. Family and friends don't have to oblige every mike with a sound bite. In Viveka Babajee's case her family was eager to use the media to air their grievances about who was to blame.
Talking to the media has become a career launcher for many Indians. You go from anonymity to recognition with every TV panel or talk show that you are willing to go on. Friends and colleagues of a celebrity victim are tapped for any possible angle, and many are happy to oblige.
The more charitable view is also valid, talking to the media helps to keep a case alive, and the pressure on,in the case of a murder. Jessica Lal's sister and Nitish Kataria's mother recognised that. In the case of a suicide there is little to justify it.
The response of the police to cases of celebrity suicide could do with considerable review. Can they be told not to feed media machine in cases of suicide even if it is a crime under Indian law? If the police are interviewing a string of former boyfriends they don't need to share the information because it is not a mater of public interest. But then reporters build police contacts precisely for occasions like this so even without a briefing the details will out. When there is a suicide note, it gives the media more of a handle than when there is not. The Natasha Padbidri case which followed that of Babaji died out much faster because there wasn't that much to go on. Before it did we learnt that she drove a Mercedes. Thanks possibly to the police who turn expansive with reporters.
From News 24: A police officer said, “It appears she was depressed as she wasn't satisfied with her professional life. We are probing other angles, including a love angle and financial difficulties”. For a contrast see how the London police behaved when British fashion designer Alexander McQueen was found hanging in his home earlier this year. “Police said officers were called by the ambulance service at 10:20 a.m. to an address in central London, and found a 40-year-old man dead. They did not name him but said next of kin had been informed.”
The other type of negative repercussion spawned by indiscriminate celebrity suicide coverage is documented by research done over the years. It shows that media coverage of a suicide leads to more suicides. An Australia-based web resource for media professionals (http://mindframe-media.powersites.com.au/site/index.cfm?display=84352) says that over 50 international studies have apparently been conducted looking at the link between media portrayals of suicide and suicidal behaviour. There is strong support for the relationship between media reporting and increases in completed and attempted suicide rates. Specific cases of suicide and their coverage have been studied to establish that the risk of copycat suicides increases in proportion to the prominence of coverage.
The research summary says higher rates of suicide have sometimes been recorded after celebrity suicides receive front page coverage. A 1984 US study and Austrian studies in 2001 and 2004 apparently found a significant increase in the suicide rate or rates of suicide attempts in months in which articles were published on celebrity suicides. As for the impact of film and television on copycat suicides, these are some of the findings:
A 1982 American study found that the national suicide rate increased for a period of 10 days following a news story on suicide.
Increases in the number of teenage suicides have also been recorded following news stories on suicide in international studies.
Coverage of suicide of elderly people has also been linked to higher levels of suicide by older people.
Several studies have found that the number of attempted suicides increased following the broadcast of a television movie or episode of a popular soap opera depicting suicide.
Studies have also found a relationship between the method of suicide portrayed in a fictional film or television program, and increased rates of suicide using this method.
On the other hand, appropriate portrayal may have a beneficial effect, according to a study which showed rates of suicide and suicide attempts by young people fell following the broadcast of tele-movies showing the impact of suicide. (Citations for each of these studies are to be found at the url given above.)
The human mind is nothing if not impressionable.
But what is it going to take to get the media to re-examine how they report celebrity suicides? How do you roll back tabloidisation as an approach to news? And given the media industry's eager engagement with fashion, models attract enormous interest and lots of fanciful theorising.
A writer in Times of India's Crest edition floated the lonely planet theory for models in the wake of Babajee's death. “But, in an alarming trend of the past two years, models who have walked the top ramps around the world seem to be resorting to suicide as a getaway from their lonely planet.” And dug up recent cases of suicides and attempted suicides this year to support her theory. Former Marie Claire editor Shefalee Vasudev's column in Outlook said that “dirges on the fashion world have become a media neurosis” and went on to rebut the picture such stories paint of the fashion industry.
Current reporting offering pat reasons for suicides has a tendency to underplay the complexity of reasons which prompt a person to take his life, often attributing it to a recent painful event. The medical evidence is that over 90 per cent of suicide victims have a significant psychiatric illness at the time of their death, undiagnosed or untreated, or both. (National Institute of Mental Health, U.S.)
There are plenty of suggestions available on the Net on how to report suicides constructively. But if constructive reporting was even faintly the aim of current suicide coverage, why would the writers and reporters confine themselves to celebrity victims? Why would they not give far more space to those whose suicides reflect acute government or societal neglect?
The media will not rein in its voyeurism left to themselves. An effective complaints council — something which does not now exist for either print or television — is likely to be the best remedial agent.