Several internet newspapers reported in October about a 12-year-old girl in Florida who was bullied on the internet and took her life. Reading about the event I felt frustration. Both because of the event but also because of how few reporters understand HOW to report to avoid the identification dilemma.
Every day about 100 people commit suicide in the US. About 1,000 make suicide attempts and almost 10,000 have serious suicidal thoughts. Globally it is estimated that 1,000,000 people will commit suicide every year. In other words, many people suffer from mental illness and many of those who will take their lives are reading online newspapers. Problems arise if the reporting contributes to more tragedies.
When a journalist creates identification between the person who has committed suicide and the reader, many believe that the journalist has done a great job. In the case of the 12 -year-old girl, several online papers have displayed a close up photo of the girl. The reader learns that she was bullied and classmates wanted her dead. We also get to see the place where she took her life. Most readers probably react with horror and sadness, and rightly so. But what effect does the publication have on other young girls who are bullied and who can identify themselves with the girl?
When someone ignorantly reports about a suicide, it is not unlikely that the reader, who for a limited period of their life is feeling bad, gets the idea: “If he/she can do it, I can do it.” Identification has occurred. The victim who is someone who actually took his/her life with a specific method perhaps reminds the reader of him/herself. As a result, the victim ”solved” the problem and does not have to go through the anxiety and the darkness that too many carry. The more detailed information about who took his life, the method used and ill-usage of words describing the deed, the more likely it is that the reader gets inspired and copies the event.
For many years few reporters have seriously reported about suicides. Many are afraid of reporting the wrong thing and rather than doing something wrong, they do nothing. This has contributed to a great stigma, taboo and poor knowledge of how big the problem is.
And thus, this gigantic social problem, which could be reduced by journalistic scrutiny and public debate, can continue. As a result of the few efforts to prevent suicides, hundreds of thousands wake up every year only to realize that someone they love has committed suicide. This in turn puts them in a risk group because many survivors also take their own lives.
The World Health Organization, WHO, has a number of guidelines on how media should report on suicide. WHO also show a lot of reports about how inappropriate reporting contributes to the tragedies. One example is the German TV series ”Death of a Student”. The start of each episode shows how a young man placed himself on the railway track and was hit by a train. When the series was shown, the railway suicides increased among 15-19 year old boys by 175 percent. The effect was the same when the series was rerun a couple of years later.
So how can you report about suicides? Well, instead of creating identification with the one who took his life, in my reportages I have focused on those who remain. When the survivors tell their story it is impossible not to be touched. How have they made it through the grief? What support have they received? How have friends and acquaintances acted? These stories are among the strongest I have heard. And they are witnesses about how much better we must be on understanding mental illness. Furthermore, I refer to where help is available; I avoid writing that someone “succeeded” in committing suicide or that someone ”choose” to commit suicide. Almost all who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness like depression. Writing that someone succeeds or chooses to kill himself sends the wrong signal. Why use the emotional word that someone ”succeeds”? And people who commit suicide are fleeing from pain rather than ”choosing” to end their life.
Remarkably often friends to survivors disappear since the fear of saying the wrong thing makes you say nothing at all. (The same fear that stops many journalists from reporting about suicides.) Several colleagues think survivors, after a certain time, should stop mourning and move on in life. They do not understand that the grief is lifelong. Moreover, it is rare that survivors receive adequate care. But instead of taking note of how little is being done today to reduce suicides, several newspapers publish sensational texts that do not put the problem into a larger context, that does not refer to where help is available and that clearly shows how the girl took her life. The publication of the story about the 12-year old girl in Florida can contribute to other vulnerable taking their lives. It would be interesting to hear how the publisher’s reason.
It is therefore about time that journalists read WHO´s guidelines and that journalists regularly are being taught HOW they should report on suicide. And why not create an award for best reporting on suicide? That would regularly lift one of our greatest international problems and simultaneously inspire thoughtful stories which may help to reduce suicides.
Journalist and author of the Swedish book When someone commits suicide – the tragedies we can prevent (Ordfront 2012). He is also one of the founders of the newly formed association Suicide Rescue.