Reporting suicide: Journalists must resist the temptation to make it a "better story"
As the reporting of Paris Jackson and Stephen Fry's suicide attempts has shown, the media has a chronic problem with the quality of reporting around suicide.
Suicide has been in the news a lot recently. Paris Jackson and Stephen Fry are the most recent high profile individuals to have their suicide attempts splashed all over the front pages. The standard of reporting has been pretty appalling - but then again, that's not very surprising, as the media has a chronic problem with the quality of reporting around suicide.
Four years ago, my dad went to a park bench in Southampton with his service pistol, and shot himself. He was a decorated soldier, who'd lost his life savings in the Madoff investment fraud. It's fair to say, a suicide as a result of the biggest fraud in history was a big international story. I think about 500 papers worldwide ran it. My family got a huge amount of calls from journalists. As a journo myself, it was weird to see a media frenzy over suicide from the inside.
With this level of media attention, I came across some truly unbelievable bottom-feeders. In a totally counter-intuitive sense, these came not from international media outlets; in fact, everyone who I dealt with from the national and international media was absolutely lovely. The real feeding frenzy for scraps came from the local press and their affiliates in my father's home town. Aside from a level of desperation and callous rudeness that came with every contact with them, a litany of broken promises, a tendency to misinterpret or misrepresent basic facts, treatment of my family which bordered on illegal harassment, and a bag of adjectives that would make a 19th century horror writer blush, I think what shocked me the most was the basic level of idiocy they displayed.
I'll give you a couple of examples.
The phone rings. I answer. Instantly, the women on the other end blurts out,
"Hiya I'm from the local paper, we're all terribly-sorry-about-your-ummm-dad, wondered if you would mind giving us some quotes for a tribute piece? The first thing we need for the tribute will be...umm how much money did he lose?" To which I replied,
"Do you mean tribute in the Roman sense then?" Tragically, she didn't get it. She then went on to ask a series of increasingly bizarre questions, including, my personal favourite, "Did your father have any enemies?" What? Sorry?! My dad was a soldier, not Batman.
When the story appeared, it started with "William Foxton's devastated son wept..." I remember being particularly offended because I'd been holding it together, dealing with all the media enquiries, and hadn't let myself cry yet. I called her, told her I appreciated she had a job to do, but would rather she didn't, you know, lie about it me in print.
"Oh, I thought it would make a better story..." was her reply.
Sigh. The other great moment was when a "PR guru" called to tell me that he could "make me a fortune from this story". I pointed out that I wasn't really interested in the money - and even if I was, I was aware that very few people pay for stories these days. He told me he could make the story "huge". I told him I'd already been in touch with the national and international broadcast media, and therefore the story couldn't get much bigger, to which he replied that he could make it "much, much bigger." I would like to know how. Once a story is on AP, BBC, Reuters, Fox and so on, the only way to make it bigger realistically is to beam it into space. Maybe he had great contacts at the Jodrell Bank observatory or in the Sh'iar empire or something. Needless to say, I turned down my opportunity to "make £££s!", but my refusal didn't stop him from bothering everyone else I'm related to in the middle of their private grief.
I wish I could say my experience didn't seem representative - but it absolutely is. Paris Jackson in particular has been the victim of a huge amount of negative coverage - the dominant media narrative has been that she's a "spoilt child", "acting out" - that the suicide was a "Cry for help". If you think the UK reaction was distasteful (including several front pages I suspect editors will live to regret), then the response in the US has been completely insane. According to Google news, there have been over a million pieces written, run, aggregated, re-aggregated. It's been liveblogged, blogged, discussed, dissected. Other celebs have rushed to comment. Her family have been bombarded with requests for comment. Hospitals have been besieged.
God knows what it feels like to be inside that bubble. The most common question is "Why?", but that's a question often that can't be answered, even by the person who has made a suicide attempt.
One thing I've been profoundly disturbed by in this whole situation, is the way there's been a huge gulf between how the narrative around Paris Jackson has developed and the way Fry's confession on stage of a recent suicide attempt has been reported. Fry has been lionised for his bravery in coming forward and talking publicly about the issue. The reporting around Fry - national treasure that he is - is characterised by careful discussion of the issues, unpacking the complexity of the issues surrounding suicide, factors that contribute to the problem and challenging the stigma associated with emotional and mental health issues. That's the kind of reporting that we need - but it's still strange to hold the two figures side by side and see how the media has dealt with both, often in the same publication..
Of course, the prime risk isn't upsetting the relatives, or what the individual might read about themselves, it's what the wider impact of reporting on suicide can do. It's been known for decades that sensationalist reporting on suicides or attempted suicides can cause more vulnerable people to see it - or particular methods of doing it - as an option. For example, a newspaper report in Hong Kong included a detailed description of a person who died by suicide involving the method of burning charcoal in a confined space. Within three years there was a dramatic increase in suicides using this method, with the number of deaths rising from 0 per cent to 10 per cent.
It's not as though the media in this country hasn't got a wealth of information on how to report suicide well - the Samaritans' guidelines are excellent. Yet we still see irresponsible reporting from publications which should know better - Ellie Mae O'Hagan's piece in the Guardian is a great deconstruction of the way benefit cut suicides have been sensationalised and irresponsibly reported. The audience wants closure, wants to fit the suicide into a broader narrative, to make it "make sense". Of course, suicides rarely make sense. They are almost always much more complex than they seem. Four years on from my Father's death, I still don't really know why he killed himself - and I never will.
As the Samaritans say, "People don’t decide to take their own life in response to a single event, however painful that event may be, and social conditions alone cannot explain suicide either. The reasons an individual takes their own life are manifold, and suicide should not be portrayed as the inevitable outcome of serious personal problems."
Narratively, that's not very satisfying, but it is responsible and true. To paraphrase the local journalist who spoke to me, there is always a temptation to make a suicide a "better story". It's a temptation that we as journalists should resist.