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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The allegations of abuse in sport are serious – but we must guard against hysteria

This week in the media, from Castro and the student rebels, hysteria over football coaches, and Ed Balls’s ballroom exit.

From the left’s point of view, the best that can be said of Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, is that – to echo Franklin D Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza – he may have been a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch. Denying Castro’s dreadful record on human rights is pointless. According to the highest estimates – which include those who perished while trying to flee the regime – the death toll during Castro’s 49 years in charge was roughly 70,000. His immediate predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, murdered, again according to the highest estimates, 20,000 but he ruled for a mere seven years. For both men, you can find considerably lower figures, sometimes in the hundreds. It depends on the politics of the estimator, which shows the absurdity of such reckoning.

 

Murder is murder

What is certain is that Batista ran a corrupt regime with close links to the American Mafia and presided over outrageous inequalities. Even President Kennedy, who ­approved a failed military invasion of Cuba in 1960, said that, on Batista’s record, “I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries”. Castro, on the other hand, created a far more equal society where illiteracy was almost wiped out, and free health care brought life expectancy up to levels comparable to those in the US and western Europe. You could say that the numbers saved from early deaths by Cuban medicine under Castro easily exceeded the numbers that faced firing squads.

But nothing excuses torture, murder and political imprisonment. There isn’t a celestial balance sheet that weighs atrocities against either the freedoms from ignorance and disease that the left favours or the freedoms to make money and hold private property that the right prefers. We should argue, as people always will, about which freedoms matter most. We should be united in condemning large-scale state brutality whatever its source.

 

Spirit of ʼ68

Though his regime became an ally (or, more precisely, a client) of the Soviet Union, Castro wasn’t a communist and he didn’t lead a communist uprising. This point is crucial to understanding his attraction to the mostly middle-class student rebels in Europe and America who became known as the ’68ers.

To them, communist rulers in eastern European were as uninspiring as the cautious centrists who hogged power in Western democracies. They were all grey men in suits. Castro had led a guerrilla army and wore battle fatigues. As the French writer Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution? – a book revered among the students – Castro’s band of revolutionaries didn’t start with a political programme; they developed one during “the struggle”. Their ideology grew organically in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

This do-it-yourself approach seemed liberating to idealistic young people who didn’t want to bother with the tedious mechanics of bourgeois democracy or the dreary texts of Marxism-Leninism. They had permission for “direct action” whenever they felt like it without needing to ­formulate aims and objectives. They couldn’t, unfortunately, see their way to forming a guerrilla army in the Scottish Highlands or the Brecon Beacons but they could occupy a university refectory or two in Colchester or Coventry.

 

Caution over coaches

Commenting on Radio 5 Live on the case of Barry Bennell, the Crewe Alexandra coach convicted in 1998 of sexual offences against boys aged nine to 15 (the case came to fresh attention because several former professional football players went public about the abuse), an academic said that 5 per cent of boys reported being sexually abused in sport. “That’s one boy on every football pitch, every cricket pitch, every rugby pitch in the country,” he added.

This is precisely the kind of statement that turns perfectly reasonable concerns about inadequate vigilance into public hysteria. The figure comes from an online survey carried out in 2011 by the University of Edinburgh for the NSPCC. The sample of 6,000 was self-selected from emails to 250,000 students aged 18 to 22, who were asked about their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual harm in sport while aged 16 or under. “We do not make claims for the representativeness of our sample,” the researchers state.

Even if 5 per cent is accurate, the suggestion that abusers stalk every playing field in the land is preposterous. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, just about every DJ from the 1960s and 1970s fell under suspicion – along with other prominent figures, including ex-PMs – and some were wrongly arrested. Let’s hope something similar doesn’t happen to football coaches.

 

Shut up, Tony

Brexit “can be stopped”, Tony Blair told this magazine last week. No doubt it can, but I do wish Blair and other prominent Remain supporters would shut up about it. The Brexiteers have spent 20 years presenting themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy to silence them. Committed to this image, they cannot now behave with the grace usually expected of winners. Rather, they must behave as though convinced that the prize will shortly be snatched from them, and treat any statement from Remainers, no matter how innocuous, with suspicion and resentment. Given enough rope, they will, one can reasonably hope, eventually hang themselves.

 

Strictly Balls

Perhaps, however, Nigel Farage et al are justified in their paranoia. As I observed here last week, the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, in the spirit of voters who backed Brexit and Donald Trump, struck more blows against elite experts by keeping Ed Balls in the competition even after judges gave him abysmal ratings. Now it is all over. The BBC contrived a “dance-off” in which only the judges’ votes counted. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage