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8 August 2017

How Mail Online reduced Sinead O’Connor’s desperation to entertainment

Yes, a sobbing celebrity released a video. But should she be turned into a gif? 

By Kirstie McCrum

Mental health issues are never going to be best served by headlines, it seems. In 2003, The Sun declared a former boxer “Bonkers Bruno” after he entered a psychiatric hospital. More than a decade on, Mail Online is harnessing technology to sensationalise the mental health problems of singer Sinead O’Connor.

“Fears for troubled singer Sinead O’Connor as she releases 12-minute video where she admits she is suicidal and living out of a motel in the ‘a**e end of New Jersey’,” read the headline, over what was in essence a 1,000-word breakdown of a breakdown.

The words sat uncomfortably above a gif, about 10 seconds long, taken from the aforementioned video.

The clip showed the Irish singer in tears, clutching her neck and face as she repeatedly pleaded for help – silently, as there was no sound on the file. When the story sat at the top of the homepage of the Mail first thing this morning, the distressing shots played again and again alongside the “sidebar of shame”. Another story featured “troubled” Sarah Harding as the ex-Girls Aloud singer ‘is being monitored by doctors and psychologists’ on Celebrity Big Brother. The reason? “Breaking down over boozy evening in the house”.

The Mail’s use of gifs on its site to illustrate graphic incidents – including one of a man snapping his leg in a stomach-churning assault – is well documented. The editorial judgement here appeared to be that O’Connor’s suicidal admissions make her one to watch.

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In the report, the Mail revealed where the 50-year-old is and details her “troubled past”.

There is no doubt from the video, which is harrowing, that O’Connor is struggling to keep it together. She posted the clip with the message “I made this video because I am one of millions”.

She speaks candidly about mental illness, saying: “it’s like drugs, it doesn’t give a s*** who you are, and equally what’s worse, it’s the stigma, it doesn’t give a s*** who you are.”

But neither, it seems, does the tabloid press. The Mail article detailed a handy reference guide to “Four marriages, three affairs with women and four children: Sinead O’Connor’s troubled love life” below the feature.

The journalist even included a quote from a British member of the public staying at the hotel asserting that “New Jersey was ‘very different, but not an a**e’,” missing the point somewhat.

In a world where celebrities have instant access to social media, it is increasingly inevitable that their trials as well as triumphs will end up shared online. Sometimes this is a calculated effort to bolster a career – see the latest celeb divorce tales.

When O’Connor, or another star with a public profile, chooses to share these intimate thoughts or sides of themselves online or on TV, there is a sense that they cease to be a private matter. Indeed, many tabloids would say that they have a duty to report it because “everyone else will”. But this race to the bottom means that the real struggle behind the issues faced by O’Connor in real life – and, as she says, those millions of others – become a secondary consideration.

Time To Change works to end mental health discrimination and provides guidelines for journalists. “When done well,” it states, “the media can be a tremendous tool in raising awareness, challenging attitudes and helping to dispel myths.”

Rachel Mackenzie, the Media and Celebrity Manager at Mind said that the charity’s thoughts are with Sinead O’Connor at what is clearly a very difficult and painful time.

She adds: “The media has a duty to report on the mental health of public figures responsibly. Triggering imagery, simplistic or sensationalist language and details of suicide methods can all have a negative effect on readers’ or viewers’ mental health.

“A lot of progress has been made over the past few years in the way that the media reports on suicide and mental health issues, which is a positive step. Sensitive media coverage gives important exposure for these issues and can prompt people to seek the support they need, as well as help to reduce the stigma around mental health problems.”

Responsible reporting on mental health usually includes providing contact details for helplines. At time of writing, the Mail article contains contact details for an American national suicide helpline – but does not mention the Samaritans (the number is 116 123) or a British mental health charity.

Unless newspapers and media outlets can get this right, whatever the professed intention of a story is, the silent sobs of a troubled woman will be reduced to entertainment for the internet. 

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