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.

If any of the content of this story affects you, the Samaritans are available to talk 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Stephen Fry at the premiere of the latest Star Trek film in May 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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In defence of the metropolitan elite

Railing against low-paid academics will not solve Britain's inequality problem. 

It’s a measure of how topsy-turvy our political culture has become that Theresa May, a Conservative, Oxford-educated prime minister, can claim to be on the side of "ordinary working-class people" against a sneering "elite". But while Brexit has made this division central to our political culture, we’ve been heading in this direction for a while. 

Earlier this year, I was watching a heated exchange between centrist Labour MP Alan Johnson and Left Unity’s Simon Hardy on the Daily Politics show. At one point, Johnson bellowed across the table: "You’re a middle-class intellectual!" So this is now a stand-alone insult, I thought to myself, and took to Twitter to share my indignation. A friend immediately replied: "He means you." And she’s right. I am indeed a middle-class intellectual, a member of the metropolitan elite. Given the prevalence of post-Brexit elite-bashing, I’m loath to stick my head above the parapet. But as my liberal intellectual English lecturers used to say, these terms need unpacking. 

The right-wing anti-elitism that we are seeing all around us co-opts the left’s opposition to financial and corporate dominance and converts it into opposition to those who are educated. To listen to Tory speeches now it’s as if the top 1 per cent didn’t own half the world’s wealth, as if the sales of individual global corporations hadn’t overtaken many national economies, as if CEOs didn’t earn 300 times the salary of the average worker. No, it’s the liberal, metropolitan elite that’s the real menace – those mighty "experts" and "commentators". As Michael Gove, another Oxford-educated Tory, declared during the EU referendum: "People in this country have had enough of experts." 
Anti-elitism conflates political office and cultural and educational distinction on the one hand, with social privilege on the other. But there’s no intrinsic reason why there should be a homogenous "political class", or that those with expertise or artistic judgement should necessarily be rich. In 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had a background in manual work; in 2010 the proportion had dropped to 4 per cent. The history of the Worker’s Educational Association and the Open University reveals a lively tradition of working-class intellectualism. It’s true that, right now, political and cultural capital are appallingly centralised, and there is a revolving door between ministerial office and business. The range of people entering the arts and higher education has been narrowed by the removal of social security and block grants.

Today's anti-elitism, far from empowering the disenfranchised, covertly promotes neoliberal economics. High standards are equated with having the upper hand. Attacks on "cosmopolitan elites" - i.e. those who benefited from affordable education - entrench inequality, put the left on the back foot and protect the real elites – all this while producing a culture that’s bland, dumbed-down and apologetic.
This manoeuvre is everywhere. Brexit is a surreal pageant of inverted protest - May’s use of the royal prerogative supposedly represents the will of the people. The beneficiaries of the PM's grammar school "revolution", she claims, will be "the hidden disadvantaged children". Those who question the evidence base for this are simply metropolitan snobs. ‘This is post-referendum politics’, the BBC’s education editor reminded us tellingly on Today, ‘where the symbolic status of grammar schools as a chance to better yourself has trumped the expert consensus’.
The higher education bill currently going through Parliament brandishes the downtrodden student consumer as a stick with which to beat academics. According to the business-friendly University Alliance, academia’s reluctance to emphasise "employability" carries "more than a whiff of snobbery". Top-down curation is out; impact, feedback and engagement the new mantra. With their worth constantly weighed against the most pressing social priorities, cultural organisations no longer seem convinced by their own right to exist.
The "democratisation" of education, media and culture must be recognised for what it is -  a proxy for real democracy and any attempt to tackle social and economic inequality. Just as the redistributive work of politics is shunted onto embattled and underfunded sectors, the same anti-elitist pressure weakens politics itself. Democracy is thoroughly distorted by economic forces. But the solution is not, as right-wing populists do, to attack the system itself - it’s the only means we have of creating a fairer world. 
This anti-political sentiment is aimed disproportionately at the left, at do-gooding idealists and defenders of the "patronising" welfare state. Stricken with anxiety about being out of touch with its former heartlands, Labour is unable to strategise, put up a credible leader, or confidently articulate its principles. Unless it can tell a positive story about informed debate, political institutions and – yes – political authority, the left will remain vulnerable to whatever Ukip contorts into next.

It’s time to stand up proudly for good elitism – for professional judgement, cultural excellence and enlightenment values. Once, conservatives championed political authority and high art. But now that they’ve become scorched-earth modernisers, it’s time for progressives to carry the torch. Otherwise, disparities of wealth will become ever sharper, while the things that give our lives meaning dissolve into mediocrity.



Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.