Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the depths to which the British tabloid press will sink for a story. They’ve long made a living out of making others miserable. Hounding grieving families, demonising minorities, doggedly pursuing juicy morsels of gossip and exposing celebrities’ innermost secrets through any means available are their bread and butter, and for some reason the public seem to be broadly okay with that.
That’s why it’s unlikely there will be a public outcry over the irresponsible and dangerous way in which Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported in the press. ‘TORTURED’, says the Daily Mirror. ‘HE WAS FACING BANKRUPTCY’, screams the Daily Mail. ‘ROBIN: HIS FINAL HOURS’, bellows The Sun. Sensationalising suicide and revealing minute details, taking all-too-obvious pleasure in laying bare the exact circumstances of his death. All in the public interest.
It’s obviously far too much to expect the media to respect the privacy of Williams’ grieving family and friends. That went out the window when the ABC decided to do aerial shots of his house – as if there were anything to see. In the public interest, you understand.
What we ought to worry about is the effect this kind of reporting will have on people who are already suffering from depression, who may already be considering suicide, who may have gotten close to trying it once or twice. There’s a proven link between reporting of a celebrity’s suicide and an increase in the suicide rate. No matter what the media does, it’s likely we’ll see an uptick in suicides for the next few weeks. Being optimistic, that will hopefully be offset by the huge surge in articles about mental health spurred by Robin Williams’ death. Hopefully. But it does mean that the media have to be incredibly careful to make sure that their coverage is as sensitive as possible, lest they nudge already vulnerable people towards the point where they make an attempt on their own lives.
To that effect, Samaritans have a set of guidelines for media outlets reporting on suicides, available by taking five seconds to google them. Here they are:
1. Think about the impact of the coverage on your audience – this means providing information on how to find help if individuals find the article distressing. I haven’t yet had a chance to read the inside of the papers concerned, but I’m willing to bet that one or more of them haven’t done this.
2. Exercise caution when referring to the methods and context of a suicide – in essence, don’t provide too much detail, particularly if the methods are easy to replicate. Sounds like it should be simple enough.
‘Hanged on bedroom chair, knife and blood by body’, says the Sun. ‘He went to bed alone, slashed wrists then hanged himself’, the front page of the Metro tells us.
3. Avoid over-simplification – don’t talk about simple triggers, like losing a job, or money troubles, as the ‘cause’ of suicide. It’s not that simple. But that’s fine, because the papers surely understand that suicide is a symptom of complex underlying problems.
‘Did money troubles tip comedy genius Robin Williams over the edge?’ asks the Mail, nodding suggestively at the reader. ‘Visit to AA before suicide’, says the Sun, winking.
4. Steer away from melodramatic depictions of suicide or its aftermath – fairly self-explanatory and easy to follow.
‘Haunting details of his final night’ – the Daily Mail.
‘Hanged on bedroom chair, knife and blood by body’ – The Sun.
‘Agony of his final hours revealed’ – the Metro.
5. Aim for sensitive, nonsensationalising coverage – I’m not even going to touch this one.
6. Consider carefully the placement and illustration of reports – make sure they’re not in a place which could unduly influence vulnerable people.
If you’re beginning to get the feeling that the staff of the Daily Mail, the Metro, the Sun and the Mirror have never even glanced at these guidelines, you’re not alone.
There’s no easy way to report on suicide, particularly when the victim is someone so well-known and well-loved. There’s a delicate balance to strike between informing the public and protecting the vulnerable. The problem is that these papers don’t seem to have given vulnerable people a single thought in their publication of stories which will likely lead to further, easily preventable, misery. Instead, they’ve sensationalised a tragedy in the most tasteless way possible. It’s sickening. As a member of the public, it’s certainly not in my interest.
If you’re angry too, and you don’t want this defended on the grounds that it’s in your interest, you can write to the PCC to complain here: http://www.pcc.org.uk/advice/editorials-detail.html?article=NTU4MQ%3D%3D