Some journalists say covering suicide can support those with mental illness, but others fear copycats and privacy rights
Suicide needs to be discussed in the media, according to Andre Picard, a Globe and Mail reporter.
In the last five months, since Picard announced this to students at a panel at Mount Royal University, very little has changed.
The media’s common practice is not to cover suicide in the news, for fear of what is known as the contagion theory. This is the idea that if someone reads about a suicide, they too may choose to commit suicide, according to Media Contagion and Suicide Among the Young — a study done by researchers at the University of Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania.
However, some recent efforts by many reporters have been made to break down the walls of suicide and mental health in the media, which has led to a different narrative in the news.
Picard sees the benefits of bringing the issue of suicide into the public lens.
“It’s not a normal thing but a frequent thing and we should cover it like anything else,” he says. “This whole idea that this is taboo; we shouldn’t talk about that, it will hurt people’s feelings — I don’t think that helps anyone.
“I believe giving the context to a suicide and not just reporting on gratuitous violence is important so people can learn something from it.”
However, Picard did warn that there are potential dangers when covering this sensitive subject.
“One of the worst things a person can do is to glorify it.”
This is something that Lorne Motley, editor-in-chief of the Calgary Herald, agreed with in an April 2013 interview.
“I think it’s been the traditional thought in newspapers that if we write about suicides, by putting it (in) headlines, we would perpetuate further suicides,” he says. “I think that is changing.”
Motley went on to say that although coverage of suicide is changing, reporters and journalists still need to be aware of how they cover the sensitive matter.
“I think many studies, which are debatable, show that coverage could cause further risk of suicide.
“When we do cover them, they are of the public interest. That means if it’s an event that happens that affects a lot of people, celebrity suicides or events that in principle go into bigger news stories.”
An example of this was on Sept. 13, 2013, when the Herald published an Associated Press story on a Florida teenager who committed suicide after being bullied online. This story is of the public interest in Canada because of the publicity surrounding Rehtaeh Parsons — a teenager from Nova Scotia who committed suicide after she was bullied online. 3,890 Canadians committed suicide in 2009. Individuals aged 40 to 59 are most likely to commit suicide.
– Statistics Canada
More local coverage of suicide was published on Sept. 3 in the Calgary Herald, after Trinh My Tran, a patient at Rockyview General Hospital, jumped off a bridge into the Glenmore Reservoir on June 5, 2011. The story focuses on the inquiry into her death and how she was cared for in the hospital leading up to the event.
Picard says he agrees that coverage needs to be in the public interest, but disagrees about how coverage could affect at-risk groups.
“The research says that there is a danger to copying the method, but not actually copying the will to commit suicide,” he added.
“Someone (will not) jump off a bridge because they read about it in the news. They will be predisposed to it. They will have a mental illness, they’ll be thinking about it and they’ll jump off a bridge instead of into a subway car.”
He went on to say that suicide is often the result of an underlying mental health issue and that the biggest challenge is providing valuable context in the interest of helping those in need.
“We need to recognize that this is a huge problem in Canada. Around 3,600 people die by suicide in this country each year. It’s about six times as many as murder,” Picard says. “That tells me that there is a lot of people out there who are sick and need help and aren’t getting it.”
According to Sheila Johnstone, spokesperson for the City of Calgary, the city generally does not issue news releases on suicides.
She added that it is best practice generally in media to not cover suicides, with the exception being murder-suicides and celebrity deaths.
The media policy guide for Calgary Police Service reinforced this idea, saying that CPS does not issue news releases on suicide.
Picard has written about how we can no longer bury our “heads in the sand” in an article originally published in the Globe and Mail on Sept. 6, 2012.
Motley agrees with Picard in saying that mental health should be a larger issue in media. Motley does, however, see progress.
“Mental health is a huge issue in society. In the last number of years we have been talking about it a lot more openly and I think that is a good thing,” he says.
Photo courtesy of jar0d / Flickr
“It is one of those aspects in society that has been hidden away and we are only now trying to lift the veil on it and we don’t yet have a complete understanding what is underneath.”
Lifting that veil for Picard means getting past several formerly taboo topics that is difficult for many to get past.
“There are religious reasons. For example, it used to be if you died by suicide you wouldn’t be able to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. There is also some squeamish feelings from reporters about bringing more pain to the family and until fairly recently it was a crime in Canada to die by suicide,” he says.
“These things have been broken down formally but not informally.”
The latest edition of the Canadian Press stylebook, which many journalists use, is fairly vague on the topic, however it does mention that it is irresponsible for journalists to speculate on cause of death without facts. Further it explains that if a public figure has committed suicide, the “wishes of the family outweighs the public’s right to know.”
For Picard, the most important aspect of this issue is to create a dialogue that is more open to mental illness in order to offer support.
“I know through my work as a health reporter that mental health doesn’t get covered proportionally to physical health,” he says. If I can encourage some slow cultural change — bit by bit — with my writing and that makes it easier for others to talk about it, then that’s something.”
Motley agreed with this sentiment.
“If we cover it responsibly and offer our readers a place to go, resources and information, I believe that it is what we are here to do.
“I believe that issues have to be brought into the public debate in order for people not to be afraid of it.”
For more information, The Canadian Mental Health Association has an online guide for media members created to “inform responsible and sensitive reporting of suicide that minimizes harmful stigma, (reduce) the incidence of suicide contagion and inform the community about suicide and mental illness.”