Journalists struggle with how to cover the sad taboo
By: Jordan Parker
The lethal ‘S’ word hung over newsrooms for years, always present but rarely reported.
The issue wasn’t often considered in Nova Scotia newsrooms until Matthieu Aikins exposed the silent killer in 2008.
Media discussion of suicide can help.
Toronto Star reporter Liam Casey is lucky to be alive today. If Casey had overdosed on pills after a long battle with depression in September, 2005, he would never have shone the spotlight on suicide, a topic that is only now beginning to get the media attention it warrants.
When the youthful reporter ran out to cover a body in the water for the Ottawa Citizen, he and his editors were certain the story was destined for the front page. Casey was informed the death was a suicide, but diligently wrote a story, naive to the unspoken rule against suicide reporting at the paper.
“It was just said ‘okay, we’re dropping it.’ Once cops told me it was a suicide, it wasn’t explained that we didn’t cover them. I was so new that I’d never heard of the convention. But it struck me as odd,” says Casey.
Casey would later use his personal story to do a piece on the merits of suicide reporting for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. “We cover other deaths, even car accident deaths. What’s the greater good of a car accident story? Yet we still cover them. This stayed with me for a couple years, and it was almost the seed that was planted, and over time I kept thinking about it. AIDS and cancer were scary words 25 years ago. Now it’s out in the open, and there’s attention paid to it. There’s been a lot of fundraising. There have been significant gains in just being able to speak about it openly,” says Casey. “I don’t know too many large problems that get solved by not talking about them.”
“Suicide is at the same point in terms of public consciousness and discourse as where mental illness was 10 to 20 years ago. There’s a strong stigma in talking about it. But it’s reaching a point where research and science is being done, which allows us to see better and treat it,” says Aikins.
Aikins learned of 19-year-old Adam Cashen’s jump off the Macdonald Bridge in 2008. He began digging deep into the issue, and couldn’t believe what he discovered. “What intrigued me was he seemed so popular and happy, and he didn’t seem like the type to take his own life. That mystery is what drew me into learning more, and I learned more about suicide in general and a lot on the Macdonald Bridge,” says Aikins. “I learned at a terrible cost how much of an under-reported and misunderstood problem it is.”
His story, which appeared in the Coast in 2008, included dangerous details that experts say can lead to copycat suicides.
“There are a number of guidelines put out by respected associations … on whether there are such things as suicide epidemics based on media coverage. The general rule is there are real dangers about sensationalistic coverage of high profile suicides we must be careful of. It shouldn’t be a reason to avoid discussing the issue at all,” says Aikins. He says covering the topic can be crucial to curbing more suicides. “This is the moment where explanatory journalism can actually help. Still, he didn’t hold back his picturesque account of Cashen’s final moment.
Dr. Stan Kutcher, a Halifax-based professional who specializes in mental health among adolescents, says the media should be cautious when reporting on the touchy subject.
“The media can inadvertently provide information that allows unintended consequences to occur,” says Kutcher. “It can actually lead people to engage in self-harm acts.” He warns against “reporting on suicide for the sake of reporting on suicide. What seems like a good idea for prevention may not be. It’s the law of unintended consequences. When you do something for all the right reasons, the outcome may be different than what we hoped it to be.”
When Coast editor Kyle Shaw published Adam’s Fall, he kept a sharp eye on telling Cashen’s story sensitively. “Being sensitive versus sensational is a great way to look at it,” says Shaw. “I still remember when Kurt Cobain killed himself. We were watching Much Music on television … they went live and the VJ said ‘Cobain killed himself, we’re getting information. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call this number’. They were trying to be clear that by covering this, they weren’t endorsing killing yourself.”
Dr. Steven Stack, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, wrote a study that analyzed the effect celebrity suicides have on the public. The 2005 study, Suicide in the Media: A Quantitative Review of Studies Based on Nonfictional Stories, cited Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 suicide as a factor leading to a 12 per cent increase in American suicides in the month of her death.
Dr. Patrick Jamieson, the director of the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, researches suicide among youth, and has serious concerns about the role media can play in perpetuating the contagion effect. “Celebrity is real and powerful. We know celebrity correlates with increase. We know method correlates with method used. We know we’re susceptible to this. Method, youth rate, celebrity; they’re all real issues,” says Jamieson.
Despite an industry fear of copycat suicides, Kyle Shaw says Adam’s Fall was more descriptive than he originally thought. “Next time I went over the bridge I thought ‘it happened right there.’ I can see that that detail made the story incredibly compelling, but it made the suicide so real you could see how to do it. I could see how that could be a danger … I didn’t think it was sensational. If we were going to cover it again, I’d look into finding the science, and it’s plausible that that detail could be a dangerous level. That idea is flagged to me now.”
Atlantic Canada Coverage
The Globe and Mail recently wrapped up a series on mental health. Coverage of suicide in Atlantic Canada rarely makes national news.
Tom Ayers, director of editorial for the Cape Breton Post, says suicide doesn’t appear in the paper often. “We don’t cover suicides unless there are extenuating circumstances. Unless a public or well known figure is involved, or something happens in a very public place, we don’t cover suicide.”
[pullquote] “By saying nothing, we’re doing nothing.”
– Julee Adams, Halifax NS [/pullquote]
Many newsrooms in the Atlantic provinces cite a fear of contagion as a reason not to cover suicide, even though no editors or reporters interviewed had actually viewed studies on the topic.
In 2007, there was one suicide for every 10,000 people, which was double the rate from the previous year. But Prince Edward Island’s (P.E.I) the Guardian covers suicide on a “case by case” basis.
“When we don’t cover it the suicide was more private. It’s their business if they do it that way. If they cause a commotion, they create a news event. The public has a right to know then,” says Gary MacDougall, managing editor for the publication.
MacDougall cites growing efforts to tackle “mental health issues” in the media as good reporting, but says not everyone is ready to discuss suicide. “It’s a tightrope. We don’t cover these to sell papers. We do them because we feel it’s our job. We need to do it in a non-sensational way and be compassionate. Our interpretation of sensitive and insensitive is a fine line too. Not everyone agrees with the way we cover it.”
MacDougall recalls the day a resident jumped off a bridge into the P.E.I. waters. The jumper changed their mind and had to be rescued. The coverage that ensued was not well-received. “The Canadian Mental Health Association wasn’t pleased. We ran a picture of the rescue. If you knew them, you could identify this person. They were quite upset and thought that by running it we were saying to the world that this person can’t even commit suicide properly. It’s a difficult argument for the media to justify coverage. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”
Mental Health and the Media
Associations across Canada, including the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Canadian Psychiatric Association, have established guidelines to help journalists cover suicide accurately and sensitively. “We put out guidelines so psychiatrists have easily available and on-hand access to literature about safe ways of reporting suicide. We can then pass this information on to journalists, or they can seek it out themselves,” says Dr. Josh Nepon, a psychiatry resident at the University of Manitoba. Nepon was a co-author on the CPA policy paper Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide. He hopes if psychiatrists and journalists work together, they can help fight contagion. He says contagion is ‘very real,’ it shouldn’t deter reporters from covering suicide.
“Within the last 20 and 30 years there have been papers and studies showing contagion as statistically significant, but the guidelines are meant to help reporters do stories on suicide. They show ways to be safe as opposed to sensational. If you report in a safe way, you can pay homage to a huge issue. Suicide points to social problems in our country. You can put the story out, and include warning signs and ways to help. I see suicide as an opportunity to do a health intervention by safe reporting.”
Many studies have shown copycats to be a danger, and sensitive reporting can curb contagion. Researcher Thomas Niederkrotenthaler who works with the University of Vienna says suicides of “celebrities and socio-demographic groups” may contribute to the copycat effect. His team found evidence that specialized reports on the topic can also help.
Niederkrotenthaler warns that copycat suicides can occur with careless reporting, but says some good can come from shedding light on suicide. “Maybe in the case of reporting about people who are happy they didn’t die by suicide, reports can prevent suicide. They show the audience what they can do instead of dying.”
Julee Adams is an employee with the Halifax branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, and suicide is an issue that hits a personal note with her. Adams’ 16-year-old daughter lost a friend six months ago to suicide. The emotional rollercoaster that friends and family endured showed Adams the “domino effect” suicide can have, and intelligent media reports may go a long way in helping curb the problem.
“This topic in particular is one journalists are afraid of,” says Adams. “They think that if they bring it up and do it in detail, they can be blamed for the consequences of speaking out. It’s going on anyway, and we’re not talking enough about it. There’s so many teenagers that think this is an option. My daughter just had another friend attempt suicide, and no one had a clue anything was wrong.”
Adams tried to spearhead a campaign at the school to talk about suicide, but was met with resistance. “They said ‘good for you to bring it up, and good luck. But shut up and carry on.’ I found that hard. They brought in counsellors and no one talked to them, but for the school it was case closed. It was never discussed again.”
Adams says the media plays a huge role in talking about such a difficult topic. “Mental illness is in the papers a lot more. But suicide is not in people’s face enough. We’re certainly more aware, and I notice advertisements on sides of buses and bill- boards promoting mental health week and awareness. But I think suicide is still so taboo.”
Although the Globe And Mail, Toronto Star and the Coast try to tackle suicide sensitively, Adams says media as a whole has to fight their fears.
“It’s got to start somewhere. And if you plant the seed in black and white print, even if it touches one person, you’ve helped. But by saying nothing, we’re doing nothing.”