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The ghoulish pursuit of news

Mohit M. Rao
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Suicide is considered big news and its reportage sometimes borders on voyeurism. Pictures of the dead, gory details of the method of the death, and even speculation about the reasons are part and parcel of suicide coverage.

A case in point is the death of engineering student Pranay Kumar (19) in his hostel room at PES Institute of Technology here on November 22. It triggered a feeding frenzy, further fuelled by student agitations. The scene was also ripe for misinformation, with the reasons for the suicide attributed by the media (who quoted “sources”) to academic pressures, drug abuse and even a love triangle.

Media circus

D. Jawahar, Chief Executive Officer of PES Institutions, who likened the throng of reporters on the campus to a “circus”, said: “The tickers and scrolls on channels put out reasons for the suicide without naming their source or verifying the background.”

There were speculations even in Bihar — where the dead teen's family lived — and the allegations that he was a drug addict traumatised his parents, said Mr. Jawahar.

Considering incidents such as this, Pranob Mohanty, Joint Commissioner of Police (West), questioned the need for reportage of a suicide as it was a “technical crime”; that is, it does not involve an accused and a victim. “There should be caution while reporting suicide, or better yet, no report at all,” he said and added that there should be a self-censorship by media organisations themselves.

WHO guidelines

However, what is little known is that the framework for self-censorship exists in the guidelines published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the booklet, “Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals”, first printed in 2000.

They were drawn up by the WHO Department of Mental Health after studies showed that media reports could lead to “imitation or copycat suicides”. Sensitive to “vulnerable” individuals, the WHO report dissuades the use of pictures of the deceased or the spot of the suicide, or even publishing the suicide note. It said: “The degree of publicity given to a suicide story is directly correlated with number of subsequent suicides… (hence, the media should) avoid language which sensationalises or normalises suicide.”

The method too

Further, the guidelines caution against describing the method — falling off a building, leaping in front of a train, and so on. “While this may appear to make the death more newsworthy, reporting the method may trigger other people to use this means,” the guidelines said.

Even though the guidelines discourage the use of tags such as “place with the highest suicide rates” or “suicide epidemic”, it is not uncommon to find many news reports describing Bangalore as the “suicide capital of the country”.

Intrusive coverage

And lastly, the WHO report asks reporters to show consideration to the bereaved and to respect their privacy. Unfortunately, in their intrusive coverage, media organisations often flout this guideline. Family and friends are hounded, and social network profiles of the deceased are sifted through for pictures and comments; as it was in the case of Malini Murmu (22), an MBA student from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, whose Facebook profile was scrutinised by the media for the post where her boyfriend reportedly broke up with her.

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