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Reporting On Suicide 3 Years After Robin Williams

10/25/2017 12:47 EDT | Updated 10/25/2017 12:47 EDT
Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Actor Robin Williams arrives at the premiere of the film "World's Greatest Dad" during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah Jan.18, 2009.

Three years ago, comic icon Robin Williams was found dead. His death was confirmed by California police as a suicide. The coverage was overwhelming: articles, blog posts, live coverage, television segments and an outpouring of emotion over social media.

There have been similar public responses even more recently with the deaths of Chris Cornell, frontman for Soundgarden and Audioslave, who died by suicide last May, and Chester Bennington, lead singer for Linkin Park, who died by suicide in July.

The sheer volume of coverage is overwhelming when we consider that not long ago, the media refused to report on suicide.

The "contagion effect" is the argument that editors, journalists and academics used for decades to justify the exclusion of suicide from the news.

"Suicide contagion" is described by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behaviour of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide." But here's the rub: by choosing not to report on mental health or suicide, journalists are only perpetuating the stigma for those living with a mental illness.

Because mental health and suicide were hidden from the public eye for so many years, a lot of misinformation built up in the public consciousness. This made it much more complicated for journalists to report factually and carefully when they finally decided to break their silence.

Such topics are much more complicated to report on than they first appear. This may be why we've seen some harmful reporting. For example, Shepard Smith from Fox News suggested that Williams took the coward's way out.

Talking about suicide is important. Doing so helps dispel myths and combat stigma. But journalists need to report thoughtfully and with the right intentions.

I spoke with Cliff Lonsdale, author of Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health to get his thoughts on suicide coverage and how the media handled the death of Robin Williams. He told me that for each example of bad reporting, there was much more evidence of good reporting.

"I think it bears out the fact that people are really trying now to get this right," he said. "And there has been quite a lot of evidence of that effort out there.

What we need to do as journalists is to remember what our role in society is. It is, among other things, to figure out where society isn't working and point it out. If the emperor has no clothes, it is the job of the journalist to point it out."

The first step to better reporting and dialogues on mental health and suicide? Don't be afraid.

Suicide contagion

Many academics and journalists who report on mental health have discredited the notion of suicide contagion. Others argue for its validity.

Madelyn Gould, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, told the New York Times, "Suicide contagion is real." Her article on media contagion and suicide among youth argues that "suicide clusters" form when youth are exposed to the suicide of another individual.

Others think that research is problematic.

Statistics on suicide, as reported by Liam Casey for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, reveal that there has been no increase in the number of suicides following media attention. In a statement for Mindset, health reporter Andre Picard said, "When the media mostly stopped covering suicides, there was no clearly commensurate drop in deaths. And although Canadian media have paid growing attention in the past few years to instances of teen suicide, the overall suicide rate among teens remains strikingly stable."

The takeaway is that it's not journalists reporting on suicide itself that's the problem. Instead, it's how they choose to do it.

Don't report the details

There is no good excuse for journalists to report extensively on the details of a suicide – although readers could have easily been fooled into thinking it is journalistic convention during the aftermath of Williams' death.

Almost every major news source reported, in excruciating detail, the method Williams used to kill himself. In some articles, which I will not link to here, the headlines of the articles were brutally literal: "This is how Robin Williams killed himself."

Not only is this type of reporting unethical and disrespectful, it is also harmful. Following extensive reporting on suicide there can be a rise in the methods used.

So while reporting on suicide might not convince someone to have suicidal thoughts, it might convince someone who is already at risk to change their method of doing so.

You don't know what you don't know

It's okay for a journalist to admit when they don't know something. In fact, it is much better for them to do so than to speculate or simplify.

When journalists report on suicide, they have the opportunity to complicate the issue and challenge long-held notions. Complexity shouldn't scare journalists away from doing their jobs. Instead, it should force them to do them better.

Why, why, why

Some of the best reporting on Williams' suicide immediately moved away from the question of "What?" and instead began asking, "Why?"

With news that is shocking or tragic, there is a tendency to linger too long on the details. Often the coverage forgets to look at the context and deeper issues.

I understand that this is not always easy. Sometimes journalists have tight deadlines. And sometimes news reporters or wire reporters lack the expertise needed to report effectively and sensitively on mental health and suicide.

Coverage of Williams' death wasn't perfect. In fact, there were some horrible examples by some reputable media outlets. But, there were also positive examples of media coverage.

The key takeaway goes back to basic journalism ethics to "do no harm," and if that is not possible than to minimize harm. Yes we will make mistakes. But it shouldn't cause us to shy away from starting the conversation. This type of reporting can be crucial for destigmatizing and raising awareness about suicide.

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