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Social malaise that needs sensitive coverage

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K. Narayanan
K. Narayanan

It was a reader who alerted me to a significant news report buried in one of the inside pages ("Agrarian crisis, wheat import discussed", May 19, 2006): over one lakh farmers committed suicide in the six years from 1998. The second paragraph of the story said that of the over one lakh suicides reported, 15 to 16 per cent were by farmers. The reader's doubt was is it gross total of one lakh suicides over six years, or by farmers alone?

Enquiries with the Special Correspondent in Delhi, Sandeep Dikshit, who filed the report, made the picture clear. According to figures read out by Union Agriculture, Consumer Affairs and Food and Public Distribution Minister Sharad Pawar in the Rajya Sabha, suicides reported from 1998 to 2003 (the year which figures are available) ranged from 1.04 lakh to 1.10 lakh every year; farmers' suicides in these years numbered 16,015 to 17,471 a year, totalling over one lakh in six years.

For the national population of one billion the proportion of suicides may appear minuscule, but in absolute terms one lakh is no small number. And behind each one of these tragedies is a complex web of factors.

A day or two after this report appeared came the news of a student's death by suicide following the publication of examination results. Another such incident came two days later. Last week there were more, when some examination results were announced.

For journalists, covering suicides raises many questions. In the first place, should an individual suicide be reported at all? If it is done in private, how does it affect others outside the family and how is it newsworthy or in public interest? If it is a phenomenon, as among farmers, weavers, or goldsmiths, it becomes an issue to be discussed (as is being done by P. Sainath incisively in The Hindu, or was done by Frontline some time ago). So also in the case of celebrities.

Even when writing about a large number of suicides in one group, where does one draw the line? Will repeated coverage promote "suicide contagion" or the "Werther effect" as psychologists call it? (Goethe's story of a young dreamer, Werther, who killed himself for lost love led to a spate of suicides by youth.)

The Hindu used to have a policy of not reporting suicides by students after examination results were announced; it was feared that such reporting could be a trigger for more. Such non-reporting is no longer feasible. But the paper's coverage of the tragedies has always been sober and subdued, factual, even when celebrities like TV stars are the victims. In contrast to television coverage of the same events, it does not intrude into the family's privacy.

Total blackout is not desirable, says Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar, founder Trustee of Sneha, the suicide helpline in Chennai. Responsible reporting of this "multidimensional malaise with social, religious and cultural reasons" is needed, she says. Her advice is: don't sensationalise, don't describe the method of suicide (such as the chemical used) and don't glorify it.

Behind every suicide is a complex interaction of many factors mental, physical, family circumstances, substance abuse, other stresses. There is no simple explanation of the causes, Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar notes. In reporting students' suicides, underplay the examination failure aspect, and never feature it "don't make it a seed in vulnerable people," she stresses.

Journalism education has no regular courses on covering suicide. The codes of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC-U.K.) and the Press Council of India are silent on this. A few newspapers mention it in their in-house guidelines. The Guardian, for instance, asks its journalists to exercise restraint on reporting suicide or issues involving suicide, bearing in mind the risk of encouraging others.

Differing attitudes to this issue were evident some time ago when three London newspapers published pictures of a woman leaping to her death from a building. The others, including The Guardian, did not. A public debate raged over the ethics of such publication and it was taken to the Press Complaints Commission, which did not find substance in the protest. The PCC's decision was widely criticised.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), through its Suicide Project (SUPRE), and the U.K.-based media ethics charity, Presswise Trust, have comprehensive guidelines for journalists on this subject. The American Society of Suicidology and the U.S. Department of Health's Center for Disease Control have also jointly evolved a set of rules.

Some basic conclusions and suggestions emerge: There are three ways of covering suicide: in graphic detail (as many newspapers in the U.S. still do); not reporting at all; reporting only cases that are genuinely newsworthy (which requires editorial discernment).

Reporting in "an appropriate, accurate and potentially helpful manner by enlightened media can prevent tragic loss of lives by suicides" (Presswise Trust, 2001). It is not coverage per se, but certain types of news coverage that increase suicidal behaviour, WHO points out.

The suggestions include: avoid sensationalism and a description of the method of suicide; do not offer simplistic, knee-jerk explanations such as attempt to cope with personal problems; point out that the cause may be not just a recent event, but complex factors; take account of the impact on the families and show sympathy, understanding, and discretion; describe the consequences of non-fatal attempts as a deterrent; and provide links to a helpline. (When examination results were about to be announced, The Hindu ran two features on the work in Chennai of Sneha which has been active for two decades offering support to the suicide-prone.)

There is no sustained or adequate media attention to what causes suicide mental illness (depression is one main reason and can be treated through medication), physical illness, substance abuse, poverty, unemployment, and relationship failure; the risk factors and warning signals, and so on. These need analysis and explanation from time to time, to highlight the nature and magnitude of the social problem. What is needed from journalists is sensitive, appropriate writing that can promote "mental health literacy."

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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