By Gemma Richardson
With Robin Williams’ death in August, how to cover suicide was once again topical—albeit briefly—in the media. Several weeks later, Suicide Prevention Day on Sept. 10 generated additional coverage.
The sheer number of stories about the actor’s death fueled two common misconceptions: journalists only talk about suicide in an over-the-top, sensational manner, and this spotlight on high-profile celebrity suicides is in contrast to a long-standing taboo of reporting on a forbidden topic.
Let’s examine the latter misconception. The notion that suicide has always been taboo to report is incorrect and it needs to be debunked. True, the coverage in early newspapers was drastically different to what we see today, but my dissertation research shows that suicide was part of the daily fare in the Canadian press of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In contrast to what many people today believe, newspapers detailed suicide deaths and attempts with some regularity and not just in regards to prominent and powerful people. The suicides of farmers, local trades people, teenagers, foreigners, military personnel, professionals, politicians and of those in distant places around the world were all reported.
Not only were these regular items in the newspapers, but also the reports often carried explicit details. These stories often included the type and sometimes even exact amount of a poison taken, or details on how people cut their own throats, or the exact passage of bullets through bodies in self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
There were many gruesome accounts in the historical archives, such as an article from The Globe in June 1910 of a man who laid down across some railway tracks in Owen Sound, Ont. In part, it reads, “His head was severed completely from the body, and the lower part of his face was too mutilated for recognition.” This level of detail was common and there were many stories that described the condition of the body or the exact steps that lead to the death.
In the 150-year span I analyzed, I found that the style of suicide reporting didn’t begin to change until roughly the mid-20th century. Then it moved from widespread coverage to a focus on mainly bizarre and sensational deaths or the demise of prominent individuals. In the latter part of the 20th century, journalists also focused on suicide deaths and attempts made by those who were incarcerated.
It was the everyday, individual suicide deaths, often committed in private, that became taboo, and this type of coverage dwindled to nearly nil.
This shift coincides with a greater acceptance by the medical profession and the general public of the link between suicide and mental illness. As suicide moved from crime to malady, it became inappropriate to report on the suicides of private people.
In addition, three other factors coincided with this change: the growing number, and acceptance of, empirical studies linking suicide coverage to copy-cat suicides (however problematic some of these studies were); a growing demand from the public for journalistic accountability (marked with the rise in journalistic codes of ethics, press councils, etc.) and an increase in the suicide rate.
We are now in the midst of another shift in the ethical norms surrounding the reporting of suicide.
This returns us to the other misconception about media coverage of suicide—that only celebrity deaths are reported. In the media coverage I sampled between 2000 to 2013, only nine per cent of the articles mentioning suicide were about public figures and an additional 11 per cent were about people connected to public figures. The suicides of high-profile individuals may generate more intensive coverage in the moment, but the suicides of everyday people were the majority of cases.
Contemporary articles also showed an increase in the emphasis on mental illness when reporting suicide. As prevention initiatives have increased, so has coverage of these initiatives; families who have lost a loved one and then speak out about their loss and grief provide journalists with an opportunity to discuss suicide in a manner that is usually respectful to family members and raise public awareness.
The coverage in the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in the 21st century to-date was generally reflective of suicide demographics in Canada, with the largest proportion of suicide deaths being those of adult men. While teen suicide received in-depth features from time to time, adult men were the most represented in the coverage.
Yet there are still instances where the suicides of everyday people—the most common of all—are tip-toed around and described in euphemisms like “no foul play is suspected.” Stigma is perpetuated by silence and linguistic conventions that allude to suicide without ever daring to utter the word itself.
Suicide prevention experts urge direct discussion as the only way to approach the topic and this is in line with the journalistic ethos on reporting in general. Journalists must be direct and clear when reporting on suicide, while ensuring sensitivity and contextual elements are included.
Additionally, instead of looking only at reporting guidelines, journalists and editors must also look within their professional circles, to their own colleagues and the fine examples of suicide reporting that have been, and continue to be, produced.
Liam Casey wrote an excellent piece for the Toronto Star earlier this year providing an inside look at the grief of prominent politician in Toronto, George Smitherman, as he prepared for his husband’s funeral.
Good, solid pieces on suicide aren’t only recent occurrences. One of the most highly regarded is Walt Harrington’s Washington Post article “In Ricky’s Wake” that was published in 1987 (also available in his book American Profiles: Somebodies and Nobodies Who Matter).
There are numerous other examples of journalists who have approached the subject of suicide in an ethical and empathetic manner. Sensitivity should not be confused with silence or avoidance or even strict compliance with existing reporting guidelines.
Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the history of its reporting is similarly complex. Good journalism today will reflect this instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach.