In India, the media (print, TV, internet and radio) reaches close to a billion people, and despite the public’s reducing trust in the media, they still play an influential role.
In terms of suicide, the media can play a role where they can reduce suicide by reporting on survivors and their coping strategies, and they can also increase suicide ideation and attempts with irresponsible reporting.
According to “Preventing suicide: a resource for media professionals, update 2017” a reporting guide for suicides released by the WHO, there are over 100 investigations have been conducted into imitative (copycat) suicides (i.e. suicides that appear to be directly related to media reports about one or more suicides). According to their findings, irresponsible media reporting of suicide cases can lead to subsequent, additional, suicidal behaviours. Copycat suicidal behaviour is more likely when there’s repeated coverage, high-profile stories that receive prominent coverage are most strongly associated with copycat behaviour. The effect of a report is greater when the person described in the story is a celebrity or somebody well-known and popular. Some segments of the population, such as young people, people suffering from mental illness, persons with a history of suicidal behaviour or those bereaved by suicide, are more vulnerable.
On the other hand, media reports complying with responsible suicide reporting practices help prevent suicide and do not usually trigger further suicides. Stories of individuals who faced adverse life circumstances but still managed to fight their suicidal thoughts have been lead to decreases in suicidal behaviour. Educating the public on how to cope with suicidal thoughts may help reduce suicidal behaviour. Positive suicide survivor stories have a powerful impact in demonstrating that suicide is not the answer and life is worth living.
Here is a list of dos and don’ts from 26 page WHO guide on responsible practices on suicide reporting in partnership with The International Association for Suicide Prevention.
Do provide accurate information about where to seek help
Do educate the public about the facts of suicide and suicide prevention,
without spreading myths
Do report stories of how to cope with life stressors or suicidal thoughts,
and how to get help
Do apply particular caution when reporting celebrity suicides
Do apply caution when interviewing bereaved family or friends
Do recognize that media professionals themselves may be affected by
stories about suicide
Don’t place stories about suicide prominently and do not unduly repeat
Don’t use language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or
presents it as a constructive solution to problems
Don’t explicitly describe the method used
Don’t provide details about the site/location
Don’t use sensational headlines
Don’t use photographs, video footage or social media links
The Samaritans, a global organization that spreads awareness on suicide prevention, and runs crisis helplines recommends the following in its “Suicide Reporting: 10 points to remember” guide:
1) Leave out technical details about the method of suicide, such as describing the type of ligature used or the number and types of pills taken in an overdose. Never suggest that a method is quick, easy, painless or certain to result in death.
2) Language matters. Avoid dramatic headlines and terms such as ‘suicide epidemic’ or ‘hot spot’.
3) Include references to support groups and places where suicidal people can find help – it really does make a difference.
4) Treat social media with particular caution and refrain from mentioning websites or networks that promote or glamorise suicide.
5) Avoid dramatic or sensationalist pictures or video.
6) Young people are especially vulnerable to negative suicide coverage. Do not give undue prominence to photographs of a young person who has died and avoid repeated use of images such as galleries.
7) Try not to give a story undue prominence, for example with a front cover splash.
8) Don’t brush over the complex realities of suicide and its impact on those left behind. Remember that people bereaved by suicide are often vulnerable and are more likely to take their own lives than the general population.
9) Speculation about the ‘trigger’ for a suicide, even if provided by a close family member, should be avoided.
10) Use statistics with caution. Check with Samaritans or the relevant national statistical agency to make sure you have the most recent data and are comparing like with like.
* News coverage should be neutral:
Present facts in matter-of-fact language, without sensationalism; be objective rather than emotional. Do not romanticize or glorify the event, or imply martyrdom. Do not indicate blame unless clearly justified; instead, acknowledge that a combination of triggers and vulnerabilities were probably responsible. It is important that blame is not indicated, as in a headline that reads “Student caned by the headmaster, drowns himself” or “Student fails in an examination, hangs herself”.
* News coverage should be discreet:
Avoid front-page reporting, presentation in boxes, large headlines, lengthy reports, and photographs of the deceased. Do not provide detailed descriptions of the method of suicide. Do not publish suicide notes.
* News coverage should be sensitive:
Consider how the news coverage might occasion psychological and social harm to the survivors of the event. Respect the privacy of the survivors.
* Avoiding repeated viewing, forming the wrong impression and reporting on celebrity suicides:
Do not repeatedly play in the event or theme. Do not allow readers to form the impression that suicide is a way of coping with a personal problem or a way to teach others a lesson. Exercise particular caution when reporting celebrity suicides.
* Improve public awareness:
When reporting suicide, use the opportunity to improve public awareness about issues related to mental health and suicide, and sources of help. Possibilities include the provision of tips on early warning signs of suicidal behaviour and assistance that can be provided to those at risk. List suicide helplines and counselling services.
* Reduce the stigma:
Destigmatize the experience of stress, emotional difficulties, depression, and suicidal ideation so that help-seeking behaviour is encouraged.
Promote the awareness that problems can be solved and depression and mental illness can be overcome. Describe how people have overcome suicidal thoughts and cope with stress.
* Avoiding mono-causality:
Balanced reporting could also hint at other issues that might have been responsible for the suicide (that is, issues other than the stress or the trigger that seemed to be the cause) and what the affected person might have been able to do to avert the terminal event.