Macabre it sounds, but suicides seem to hold an attraction for journalists. “More suicides in Vidarbha” was a headline on Page one recently and the report gave cold but shocking statistics of this disturbingly strange and continuing tragedy, which has been reported extensively and analysed in depth by P. Sainath. Clearly it could be what is called the “Werther effect”, which refers to the phenomenon of reports of suicides triggering more suicides. There was however one newspaper report that not all the suicides in Vidarbha were suicides; it cited one instance where a murder was passed off as suicide, to get the monetary compensation the government gives.
Did newspaper reports contribute in any way to this contagion? I don’t think there has been any study. Restraint and rectitude must mark reporting of suicides, journalists are told. But such forbearance is unlikely to be effective when there are more sites on the Internet encouraging suicide than those offering help or support, as a study in the British Medical Journal has shown. This report said of the 480 hits, just under one half provided some information about methods of suicide; about a fifth were dedicated suicide sites, about half of them encouraging, promoting or facilitating the taking of one’s life. Only 13 per cent focussed on suicide prevention or offered support, while another 12 per cent actively discouraged suicide.
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The last of these is what responsible journalism should strive for, and which some media organisations actively work for. But what effect do these efforts have? Hasan Suroor from London wrote recently on the editorial page of The Hindu on the controversy in Britain over the way the media handled a cluster of suicides by young persons in the Bridgend area of South Wales. The death of 17 young people sparked speculation that it might be linked to the social networking sites that often glorify suicide.
Residents accused the media of a lack of sensitivity in reporting the deaths, while the local M.P. charged them with breaching all guidelines. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) warned against the breach of its code. By and large the reporting conformed to the code. The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor Siobhain Butterworth found the coverage in her paper “relatively restrained.”
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Such restraint is the result of surveys and studies of media coverage of suicides and mental illness (the two are linked) carried out by media organisations. They have produced elaborate guidelines, though these are not followed always, not to speak of a lack of awareness. But there is always the prospect of the PCC stepping in.
International evidence shows that care in reporting suicides can prevent copycat attempts and save lives. The most vulnerable appear to be young people. It is potentially very dangerous to provide specific details of suicide as that can trigger similar thoughts in a suicide-prone person. “When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the methods used,” says the PCC code of practice.
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“What’s the story,” a resource book for journalists in reporting suicide, has been produced by Shift, the campaign funded by the U.K. Department of Health. It is available at www.shift.org.uk/mediahandbook. Its main thrust is on dealing with mental illness, and tackling the stigma associated with it. Since suicide is the result of a mental condition, it is also covered. There is not much reporting on mental illness in the Indian media.
It is misleading, says the book, to suggest a simplistic cause-and-effect explanation for a suicide. Sensational headlines and romanticising the incident should be eschewed, and it is better to consult professionals with experience when writing about suicide.
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“Sensitive coverage saves lives” is a booklet prepared in June 2007 by Mediawise Trust, a journalism ethics charity, for the National Institute of Mental Health, England. Its recommendations to encourage more sensitive and responsible coverage of suicide are based on consultations with journalists, suicide prevention agencies, and mental health groups. It advises that particular care be taken, while reporting suicide, about the consequences for family members. It suggests training courses in journalism colleges and universities.
The study found compassion and kindness missing in media reports of suicide. Too many details were put in without thinking of the distress caused to relatives and close friends. But few journalists thought there was anything wrong in their reporting. Of the journalists surveyed, 71 per cent were unaware of the guidelines. To be effective, the study suggests, these should form part of the code of practice. They should be succinct, relevant, and easily accessible. But in the rush to beat deadlines, how many will reach out to these?
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In an earlier column (June 12, 2006), I had raised the question, should individual suicides be reported at all? If it is done in private, what is the public interest involved? I recalled these and the guidelines mentioned above, when recently I came across a report in The Hindu, “School girl commits suicide.” It gave details about how a nine-year-old girl “doused herself and set herself on fire” in a “fit of depression” (this is a simplistic explanation; it needs an expert to decide the cause), after some theft enquiry in her school. Were all these necessary?
And there was something dangling in the report. It said the police registered a case under Sec 309 IPC (attempt to commit suicide) and then “changed it to Sec 174.” No explanation of what this meant was offered.
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In the U.K. suicide is no longer a crime and most newspapers avoid the expression “commit” suicide.