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15 May 2018

Scott Hutchison’s fans shared their grief on social media – but did they realise the potential harm?

As the digital world makes publishers of us all, we must be better equipped to report the news and react to tragic events.

By Sean Adams

Think it. Post it. Done! It’s ever so easy. But what if the words you published triggered a chain of events that led to a bereft parent mourning the death of their child? However unintended, our words could contain a trigger or how-to guide for a vulnerable individual.

I’ve spent the past week looking not just for the right words but also the safest expressions of sorrow. Not for the first time in my career, I found myself reading best practice media guides on the the Samaritan’s website, and it dawned on me how ill-prepared we are as “citizen journalists”. 

Last week, a musician whose glorious songs became fireflies in a dark tunnel with seemingly no end, went missing. He was later reported to have died. You may have seen the (reasonably) responsibly reported news headlines about Scott Hutchison of the band Frightened Rabbit. You may have also seen the tweets from the band’s own account, and those from various arts figures with large Twitter followings, which played out in real time throughout the search. 

When these reports emerged, I agonised over the words to post on social media. What should I say, as myself – someone to whom his music spoke profoundly – as a BBC Radio 6 Music social media manager, and as the founder of a music website? I referred to the best practice guides over and over again. At times I wondered what difference the manner of his death made, when the simple fact was a person, a brother, a son, a friend, and a once-in-a-generation songwriter had left us far too young. He was just 36.

What you may not know is that, as a songwriter, Hutchison was more than a conduit of everyday pain. He was able to paint a vivid outline and pin a name-tag to hard-to-describe feelings. He was able to throw a wry joke, and the most tender of c-bombs into heavy-hearted scenes of guilt, lust, heartache. At his best, his songs were great big comforting hugs. This was partly because he expressed himself in manner that nudged aside the weight of the world as if it was a half-empty pint glass.

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In an age of information overload, it’s incredibly important that you know that Hutchison was able to bring joy and hope to many. Whether in interviews, on social media, or during conversations with fans at the merch stall, he spoke with an open heart about his struggle to be mentally strong. He never hid his weaknesses. He wrote and spoke with empathy about the human condition. And now, if reports are to be believed, he is one of the 84 men who take their life each week.

As the tributes poured in, I decided not to re-share anything which “might have an effect on vulnerable individuals or people connected to the person who has died”. I would avoid anything that suggested how it happened, or posts that span a narrative about why he died. 

Many of those mourning Scott Hutchison on Twitter shared his lyrics. Character limits and a culture of snappy statements make this very tempting to do. Yet the more thoughtful social media users avoided these kinds of references. 

We all have a duty of care to the most vulnerable. Traditionally, journalists had sub-editors to question the way their words could be interpreted. Yet there is no one looking over our shoulders to talk about the impact of what we are publishing online. 

We often don’t even know what our nearest and dearest are going through, so even those with a small circle of online followers cannot know for sure how they are feeling. One well-intentioned post, shared and reshared, and combined with hundreds of other similar posts, could be someone’s final straw. 

Do many of us consider this when we participate in a public outpouring of grief? Should the platforms we publish on do more to work with mental health charities? Should algorithms be used to monitor when a post could have unintended consequences? Would simply sharing the Samaritan’s media guide make a difference?

When the news shifted from Hutchison being missing to having died, I had to write about it, knowing my sentences would be read by more than half a million people. Amidst a wasps nest of Hutchison’s words swirling in my head was one sentence from the best practice guide: “Remember that there is a risk of imitational behaviour due to ‘over-identification’.” 

Other things anyone mourning online should be aware of: don’t over-sensationalise, do discuss the impact and devastation the death has had on the family, and most of all provide as much information about services where people can get help as possible, such as The Samaritans on 116123 or email jo@samaritans.org. Rrom 5pm-midnight, TheCalmZone.net has a webchat or you can call 0800 585858. There’s also Help Musician’s Music Minds Matter 24/7 helpline 0808 802 8008 or contact helpline@musicsupport.org /0800 030 6789. Really, that’s the only information that anyone needs.

Sean Adams is the founder of music website Drowned in Sound, and social media manager for BBC Radio 6 Music. Follow him @seaninsound.

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