The death of much-loved improviser extraordinaire Robin Williams at his own hand seems to have given some newspapers a green light to “go off on one” – delving into his psyche with gay abandon, detailing the precise method of his suicide, and indulging in unhelpful speculation about its causes with little regard for the grief of his family, friends and fans.
Some newspaper accounts are textbook examples of how not to report on a suicide, especially a celebrity suicide.
Williams was an internationally acclaimed comedian, actor and activist. By all accounts a generous man and a man willing to talk openly about his weaknesses – for booze and drugs – and his bouts of depression. He and his family deserve sympathy and understanding at this difficult time.
His death has opened up an opportunity to discuss the prevalence of depression and the stigma attached to it – as the BBC Today programme has done with care and consideration. For those who have to cope with depression on a daily basis, the chance to hear that others know and understand their predicament is a welcome bonus, when the media focus more often tends to be on the negative.
Research into suicide coverage worldwide by journalism ethics charity MediaWise found clear evidence that the attention given to the circumstances surrounding a celebrities who kill themselves is more likely to incite copy cat suicides. It is fair enough for editors to protest that their stories are not the direct cause of imitative behaviour, but Oxford professor of psychiatry Keith Hawton’s comprehensive review of studies from more than 20 countries stretching back over 150 years indicates that “secondary suicides” often follow sensational or detailed coverage.
Our research also found this to be true, for example, in Sri Lanka and in Taiwan. Copy cat suicides rapidly followed publicity surrounding the separate suicides of two well-known personalities in Taiwan, and there have been similar examples in Australia, Austria, Germany and Hong Kong. When details of an unusual method were published by Hong Kong media in 1998, nine similar cases were reported within a month. Two months later it had become the third most common method, and within two years it was the second most common method.
MediaWise set about devising guidelines that would make sense to media professionals by working with journalists and suicide prevention agencies, only too well aware that accusing the media of encouraging suicidal behaviour would be the least likely way to encourage change.
What was equally clear to us was that if and when the media signposts agencies that can offer help and support to those feeling desperate, there is more likely to be an uptake of the services that can help lift people from the abyss.
Coverage where newsworthy
Hence our succinct nine-point guide is headed Sensitive Reporting Saves Lives. Far from being a call to avoid reporting suicides, it encourages coverage where it is newsworthy, and reminds journalists that they too are vulnerable – working in a high-pressure, competitive environment and dealing with less salubrious aspects of human behaviour.
In a separate study for the National Institute for Mental Health in England we discovered that journalists are most likely to take notice of these guidelines if they have had personal experience of suicidal behaviour or if the issues have been flagged up in training.
Our earlier work revealed that few codes of conduct, house-style books or journalism training courses ever mentioned how to cover suicide. For many journalists their first encounter with suicide will be responding to a police report that someone’s death is “not considered suspicious” or being sent to cover an inquest. They will have had little formal guidance to work from.
A sensitive approach
There was uproar and cries of censorship when coroners indicated a few years ago that they may impose restrictions on reporting of suicides. They know some thoughtless and sensational reports have exacerbated an already traumatising experience for friends and relatives, some of whom may have perfectly legitimate reasons not to want the precise nature of a person’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, broadcast widely. There may be religious reasons, but often it is to protect children or elderly relatives. And sometimes there are intimate revelations at inquests that it is in no-one’s interest to publicise.
We do not want a situation where suicides are “covered up” as a matter of course, but we do need a more sensitive approach to coverage. A concern for any young people involved, and a recognition that too many details about a particular suicide method may well inspire repetition, should be reasons enough to report with sensitivity.
Sometimes suicide is even romanticised - as in representations of the tragic death of the poet Chatterton, or as if it is an inevitable consequence of thwarted love. In Williams’ case it has been represented as both a way out of depression and of debt - with a misogynistic hint that ex-wives are somehow to blame for exacting alimony.
If these seem cheap and nasty criticisms of how some papers (and not just the tabloids) have covered Williams’ death, editors should think for a moment about how they would like to see a suicide in their own family or on their own staff covered. They would probably want as little detail as possible to emerge. A sensitive approach to suicide coverage, like the reporting of any personal tragedy, is a good example of the do-as-you-would-be-done-by school of journalism.