Suicide Coverage Better Left Unsaid

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: March 2008

This article was written for an opinion writing class at Humber College.

Over the past year, 17 young people, between the ages of 15 and 30, have been found dead in Bridgend, South Wales, and all but one had hung themselves. The British media is now under the spotlight in their treatment and coverage of the suicides, accused of encouraging the young people of the area to follow suit.

The direct involvement of the media is up for debate, but the message is clear that increased coverage was followed by further suicides. Covering suicide is better left outside of the public realm, not allowing those most in danger to be pushed towards the same fate, and also respecting the private grief that family and friends left behind are struggling with following a suicide.

The sensitive nature of suicide has left many publications with the decision on what to cover, and more importantly, if to cover the suicide at all. The general guideline was to keep suicide hidden unless it involved a public figure, occurred in a public place, or if it involved a murder-suicide. The coverage of the Bridgend suicides involves none of these guidelines, signaling an apparent depart from the norm.

In Canada, the most recent suicide covered in the media was the February 18 story involving a restaurant owner who recently committed suicide after her family restaurant burnt down the week before. This restaurant owner was not a public figure, did not commit suicide in a public place and did not commit murder-suicide. The only reason her death was covered was because the publication had been following the arson case already, reporting on an interesting turn of events in the story. In any other situation, her reason for death would not have been mentioned even in her obituary.

As journalists, we have an immense power to inform others of events, people and places, and we also have the power to influence the minds of the most vulnerable of citizens. Leaving suicide outside of the public debate prevents copy-cat situations, or what social scientists call “suicide contagion.” A common behaviour by journalists is to explain how the subject killed themselves, focusing on the most newsworthy of facts: the method. Thankfully most suicides receive no media attention. This raises the question of why any suicide should find its way into a newscast or newspaper.

In Canada, there were 3,613 suicides in 2004. While the highest number is for those aged 45-49, young people remain the most likely to be influenced by the media. Journalists must remember that these people will likely take everything said as fact, possibly using raw feelings of despair as signals that they too need to escape. The one instance that reporting suicide might actually help a young person is if they are given numbers for Kids Help Phone or other methods of assistance within the story itself. However, it is more useful to provide help in schools and home for young people, giving them assistance without including those who were successful at killing themselves.

Respecting those who have recently lost someone to suicide should be a number one priority for journalists. However, for an industry whose lifeline often is based around knocking on grieving family homes for a single quote, this sensitivity is not always available. When a large number of suicides happens, as was the case in Bridgend, the coverage leaves some victims unknown and others, most notably the most recent, to be the highlight of the story. These families are often bombarded with the media, erupting what should be a private family time into media frenzy.

For publications that want to include suicide stories to increase readership, wouldn’t it be preferable to write a feature article pointing out warning signs, help for those in despair, and also support for those left behind? It is time to do away with the sensationalism of suicide, stop reporting the heroic and romanticized versions of the deaths, and give support for the most vulnerable of society. Not everything that bleeds has to lead.