Human Exceptionalism

Decrying Too Much Suicide Details in Media

I agree with the perspective of this column in the Guardian. But it is missing a crucial element. From the column “Warning: Media Reports on Suicide Can be Fatal,” byline Ben Goldacre:

[O]ne important cause of suicide seems to have been missed…[I]t has been shown repeatedly that suicide increases in the month after a front page suicide story. There is also evidence that the effect is bigger for famous people and gruesome attempts.

Overdoses increased by 17% in the week after a prominent overdose on Casualty (watched by 22% of the population at the time). In 1998 the Hong Kong media reported heavily on a case of carbon monoxide poisoning by a very specific method, using a charcoal burner. In the 10 months preceding the reports, there had been no such suicides. In November there were three; then in December there were 10; and over the next year there were 40.

And it’s not pie in the sky to suggest the media should be careful in how they discuss suicide. After the introduction of media reporting guidelines in Austria, there was a significant decrease in the number of people throwing themselves under trains.

So organisations such as the Samaritans suggest that journalists avoid crass phrases such as “a successful suicide attempt”. They suggest that journalists avoid explicit or technical details of suicide methods, for reasons you can now understand. They suggest that journalists include details of further sources for help and advice, since an article about suicide represents a great opportunity to target people at risk with useful information. And they recommend avoiding simplistic explanations for suicide.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But something very important is missing in this analysis.

Are there any more sensationalized suicides in the world today than assisted suicide of people who are ill or disabled? Good grief: We repeatedly see detailed and justifying depictions of assisted suicides–even actual footage of the deaths themselves–not to mention overt proselytizing for assisted suicide by advocates for “death with dignity” in the media. Press conferences called by assisted suicide advocates to extol the self killings of people who were dying or disabled receive wide and uncritical coverage. Relatives often flock to the microphones to compliment their loved one’s fortitude. How-to-commit suicide gurus are given celebrity status and kid gloves treatment by press from here to Timbuktu. The language is even euphemized to make the these suicides more acceptable to the general public, as in, “It isn’t suicide, it’s aid in dying.”

I went into Greenacre’s archive and looked back more than a year: Nothing about that at all. The omission of any mention of these glaring examples, many of which took place just within the last few months in the UK–while discussing copycat suicides from more than a hundred years ago–is troubling. But it points up a profound disconnect in the media that threatens people who are ill or have disabilities as surely as the celebrity suicide threatens impressionable youth.


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