By Dr Alexandra Pitman, Clinical Research Fellow, UCL Division of Psychiatry
An article published last month in the mental health research journal Crisis reviewed arts journalists’ reporting of suicide when writing about painters who had died in this way, and concluded that they had failed to adhere to media guidelines on reporting suicide.
The research findings were summarised clearly by Roy Greenslade on the Media Guardian website: 38% of the 68 articles that mentioned the artist’s death had breached media guidelines by providing explicit descriptions of the suicide method; 27% had romanticised or glorified the suicide; 21% had used inappropriate language (such as “a successful suicide attempt” or “to commit suicide”); and 7% had employed simplistic explanations for suicide triggers. All 68 had omitted to provide information on sources of support for people affected by suicide.
Why should this matter? Evidence that has amassed over the last twenty years shows that irresponsible media portrayals of suicide can promote copycat suicide attempts. Samaritans guidelines recommend that journalists should not state details of the suicide method, should avoid glorifying or romanticising suicide, and should always publish information on sources of support for any readers affected by the issue of suicide.
Additionally they advise that the term ‘to commit suicide’ is no longer appropriate, because 50 years after the decriminalisation of suicide the relatives of those who die by suicide prefer their loved ones not be stigmatised in this way. The Press Complaints Commission (predecessor to IPSO) published its Editors’ code of practice in 2009 which also said that suicide method should not be stated.
I was one of the authors of the research study, and can suggest two possible explanations for the poor compliance of arts journalists with media guidelines: either they are not aware of the guidelines, or they believe that the advice does not apply to them.
I should disclose my own past ignorance of the recommendations when reporting suicide. In 2008 I wrote a short article about Mark Rothko’s Tate Modern show for the British Journal of Psychiatry. Having just started working in suicide research I was not yet familiar with the Samaritans media guidelines and described his method of suicide. It was a naïve error, and I regret this. The journal’s readers are primarily doctors; one of the occupational groups at highest risk of suicide in the UK. Now that I am familiar with the research evidence on the downstream effects of irresponsible suicide reporting, I can see the potential for damaging effects. Although I have no way of knowing the nature of the consequences, the thought of this makes me uncomfortable.
The responses of arts journalists to Roy Greenslade’s article appear to suggest that a lack of awareness of the guidelines is not the case so much as the attitude that they are not relevant to them. Waldemar Januszczak of The Sunday Times argued that he had been misunderstood when mythologizing Rothko’s suicide “His suicide topped it all off splendidly”.
Jonathan Jones of The Guardian made “no apology” for graphically describing the method of suicide chosen by Mark Rothko. He also took issue with what he perceived to be a demand for journalists to avoid writing about suicide.
Of course we should write about suicide, and reduce the stigma surrounding the second most common cause of death among young men. However, the message the guidelines communicate is that anyone portraying suicide should think more carefully about the way it is written about, as part of efforts to reduce suicide rates. Their readership understood this clearly, with responses on Twitter and The Guardian website suggesting the need to take the guidelines seriously:
“As someone once suicidal, in the distant past, I think they may actually have a point
“I think it’s ignoring the truth to pretend a violent and often desperate act is beautiful, noble, and/or poetic, when, in reality, you don’t know whether it was any of those things at all”.
“How much effort is it to write the Suicide Hotline’s number below the article on the off chance it saves someone’s life?”
Most attention tends to focus on the work of news journalists when reporting suicide, but this does not mean that the guidelines apply only to news reporting. Last year news journalists’ coverage of the death of Robin Williams was subject to particular criticism (including from Hacked Off), based on the research suggesting that it is irresponsible reporting of a celebrity’s suicide that has the most toxic effect.
Media monitoring organisations, however, simply do not have the time or resources to scrutinise the output from all sections of the media, despite suicides being reported in a range of contexts. Arts journalists write about a group of people with a celebrity status of their own: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Diane Arbus, Dora Carrington, and Mark Gertler all died by suicide. Similarly sports journalists have written about the suicides of Gary Speed, Robert Enke, and Justin Fashanu. Fashion journalists have reviewed the lives and deaths of Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow, and L’Wren Scott. Suicide researchers are not exempt from guidance on language and content either.
I mentioned my own transgression earlier, and a quick search of academic journal titles shows up numerous breaches of Samaritans guidelines on the use of inappropriate language. A British Medical Journal research article from 2010 is entitled “Method of attempted suicide as predictor of subsequent successful suicide: national long term cohort study”. Is a ‘successful suicide’ really so laudable?
Anyone writing in a public forum has a readership who might be affected by the language used, by an idea planted through mention of the choice of method, by the romaticisation of the death of someone they revered. Those who write about the suicide of artists tread on particularly fragile ground when subscribing to the notion of romantic suicide and of a martyrdom achieved through a creative life ending this way.
Among those articles sampled for our research study was one published in the Daily Telegraph, suggesting that “Kirchner lived the sort of life we secretly believe a real expressionist should live. Early success in Dresden … ended with his suicide at the age of 58.” Another, published in The Guardian, concluded that “(Van Gogh’s) early suicide made the myth as much as completed his art”. Awareness of the damage wreaked by propagation of these myths is the starting point for challenging them.
Adhering to the media guidelines asks very little of journalists. How much effort is it for anyone writing about suicide to comply with advice on language? To what degree does it constrain stylistic freedom to acknowledge the consequences for vulnerable readers? What price a brief line at the end of an article providing a helpline number?
In 2012 at least 5,981 people died by suicide in the UK. If there is a chance that observing media guidelines might help reduce this figure in the future, journalists and editors might consider more carefully the message they risk putting across.
Dr Alexandra Pitman and Dr Fiona Stevenson’s report “Suicide reporting within British newspapers’ arts coverage” can be found here.
If something is troubling you and you need help or advice, information on how to get support or numbers to call can be found on the NHS Choices website or you can ring The Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.