Suicide

March 28th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, references, suicide | 89 Comments »

Apologies for the exegesis, but I would like to formally introduce this piece as what I hope is my first unambiguous abuse of my position as a “columnist”. I had an acquaintance – the partner of a cherished ex-girlfriend – die in tragic circumstances (not suicide, as it happens) and the details were pored over hideously and unnecessarily by the media for no reason other than prurience and a desire to make a spectacle of someone else’s pain. The media have made it quite clear that they cannot be trusted to report sensibly on coroners’ inquests, and so they have made it quite clear that they should be expelled from them.

The Telegraph piece discussed below (which I suppose you can all find if you wish to) has stayed with me for many months, and rings out as one of the most appalling and foul pieces of reporting I have ever seen. It was written by someone called Charlotte Bailey. I suppose you can all find it if you wish to. I hope I have managed to make this an interesting column despite my indulgence, and I have pasted at the end what I hope is a very powerful piece of research.

Ben Goldacre
Saturday 28 March 2009
The Guardian

This week, in my crescendoing tirade against journalism, we shall review the evidence that the media actually kills people.

The suicide of Sylvia Plath’s son has filled the news. The media obsessed – understandably – over genetics, when mental illness is probably the single biggest risk factor, but the coverage has been universally thoughtful, considerate, informed, and responsible. This is not always the case, as we shall see. But before we get there, one important cause of suicide seems to have been missed.

In The Sorrows of Young Werthe by Goethe the hero shoots himself because his love is unattainable. It was banned after men throughout Europe were reported to be dressing like Werther, copying his affectations, and taking their own lives in the same style.

But a myth about a book is not enough: you need research. And it has been shown repeatedly that suicide increases in the month after a front page suicide story. There is also evidence that the effect is bigger for famous people and gruesome attempts. You may want to remember that fact for later.

Details matter, as ever. Overdoses increased by 17% in the week after a prominent overdose on Casualty (watched by 22% of the population at the time), and paracetamol overdoses went up by more than others. In 1998 the Hong Kong media reported heavily on a case of carbon monoxide poisoning by a very specific method, using a charcoal burner. In the 10 months preceeding the reports, there had been no such suicides. In November there were 3; then in December there were 10; and over the next year there were 40. You may want to remember that story for later.

And it’s not pie in the sky to suggest that the media should be careful in how they discuss suicide. After the introduction of media reporting guidelines in Austria, for example, there was a significant decrease in the number of people throwing themselves under trains.

So organisations like the Samaritans take this seriously. They suggest that journalists avoid crass phrases like “a ‘successful’ suicide attempt”. They suggest that journalists avoid explicit or technical details of suicide methods, for reasons you can now understand. They suggest that journalists include details of further sources for help and advice, since an article about suicide represents a great opportunity to target people who are at risk with useful information. And they recommend avoiding simplistic explanations for suicide.

From the weekly mass of reports that trample on this perfectly good common sense, one article from the Telegraph at the tail end of last year particularly sticks in my memory. It is very different from the coverage of Sylvia Plath’s son, and you might have missed it.

“Man cut off own head with chainsaw” was the headline: “A man cut off his head with a chainsaw because he did not want to leave his repossessed home.” What followed this headline was not a news story: far from it. What the Telegraph published was a horrific, comprehensive, explicit, and detailed instruction manual.

In fact this information was so appallingly technical and instructive that after some discussion we have decided that the Guardian will not print it, even in the context of a critique. It gives truly staggering details on exactly what to buy, how to rig it up, how to use it, and even how to make things more comfortable while waiting for death to come. Suicidal thoughts are common. They pass.

Journalists get these kinds of stories from coroners’ inquests, which are open to the public because we decided, as a community, centuries ago, that it was important to be transparent about the judicial process.

Perhaps Sylvia Plath’s son will have a public inquest. Perhaps the media will cover it in the same way that the Telegraph covered the tragic case of Mr Phyall. I doubt they will, and I very much hope they won’t. It’s just hard to tell which is the journalists’ true voice: the caring, compassionate, informed consolation, or the murderously detailed chainsaw voyeurism.

Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

References:

Relevant papers can be found in the links above. There is a literature which I think is extremely powerful, and yet unanimously ignored by mainstream media, and that is the follow-up data on what happens later in life to people who have felt so suicidal that they have made serious attempts on their own lives. In extremis Pajonk et al followed up a large number of people who they picked up in intensive care after very serious suicide attempts. Amongst those who survived, and did not have serious psychotic illnesses, six years later, the majority were happy and well, living productive family lives, and were – we might reasonably interpolate – glad to be alive.

This is the reality of suicidal thoughts, and this is the kind of thing that people need to be told, in place of detailed instructions on how to kill yourself with a chainsaw. I hang my head in shame to think that I have ever been called a journalist, and in all honesty I don’t understand how Charlotte Bailey could write what she did, or why her editor would publish it.

Midday:

to be clear, commenters are absolutely right, my suggestion that the press should be banned from coroners courts outright is poorly thought through. the end goal is that they should write about this kind of thing a bit more sensibly. shaming them or regulating them might be another route to make this more likely, and i’d be pleased to hear if people had any other ideas.


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89 Responses



  1. Belfast Gonzo said,

    March 28, 2009 at 4:37 am

    Ben, while I can understand your frustration, preventing reporters from covering inquests would also mean, for example, that the deaths of people in custody could not be reported.

    While I agree there is merit in not reporting the details of suicides to prevent ‘copycat’ cases, I would take issue with your implication that coroners’ courts should not have media access. That would also have serious repercussions.

    Media guideline do exist for the reporting of suicides. How you insist they are followed is another, more difficult, matter.

  2. NiroZ said,

    March 28, 2009 at 5:19 am

    IMHO, they should report more failed suicide attempts. Hearing about the case of a woman who jumped from a 9 story building, who survived but was crippled was something that really made me realise how painful jumping off tall buildings can be, and thus prevented me from doing it.

  3. mrmuz said,

    March 28, 2009 at 5:24 am

    They seem to have taken the story for some Darwin Awards style sensational demise, which isn’t nice.
    Still the subject is a touchy one. It’s not journalism and newspapers per se, but what about things like euthanasia info put about by guys like Kevorkian and Nitschke? I find those guys quite heroic in a very murky area most people want nothing to do with. But the info plainly has other applications.
    Sensationalism is one thing, but as a bit of an ex nut I’ve always wished the world didn’t tiptoe around the subject and thought that I and others would be better off if things were better acknowledged (in Australia suicide is effectively unreported for fear of copycats). But I realise there’s a broad spectrum of responses to this sort of story and I also wouldn’t entirely trust the media with it, unsupervised.

  4. Xadoc said,

    March 28, 2009 at 5:31 am

    Sadly, this is nothing new. There was a rash of copycat suicides following the appearance of Henry Wallis’ heavily romanticized painting, ‘The Death of (Thomas) Chatterton’ in 1856.

  5. infinitejones said,

    March 28, 2009 at 6:04 am

    The Telegraph did actually get told off about it, by the PCC:

    www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/4160100/PCC-adjudication-chainsaw-suicide.html

    Nothing more than a slap on the wrist though.

  6. prwa said,

    March 28, 2009 at 6:51 am

    I have a hypothesis concerning the media :

    All commercial media – newspapers, magazines, commercial TV, commercial radio, and any other organisation that transmits, broadcasts or publishes advertising – has one main, possibly only, objective : to raise revenue through advertising. Printed media base their rates on circulation figures – higher circulation figures, higher rates. To ensure high circulation figures they publish lurid, sensational stories. There are two cynical journalistic maxims : ‘why spoil a good story with facts’, and ‘if you don’t have any facts, invent some’.

    The broadcast media rely on on audience numbers which are difficult to assess. So, programmes are broadcast which are more likely to ensure a large audience. The media themselves advertise forthcoming programmes to ensure large audiences. This enables them to charge higher advertising rates during and close to the relevant programme.

  7. ppower said,

    March 28, 2009 at 7:09 am

    Ben, the tone and content of this article sums up exquisitely the formidable priggishness of a member of the caring profession employed by the social workers journal.
    Your schoolboy wittering make me want to take a chainsaw to my own neck. Try to keep the indignation levels to a manageable level, your sincerity is not in doubt but you are becoming a bit of a bore.

  8. Dudley said,

    March 28, 2009 at 7:25 am

    I don’t understand how you can take this position, given your very vocal support for blogging and citizen journalism.

    I’m sure you’re aware of sites like rotten.com or the late unlamented ogrish.com, never mind Wikipedia’s page on suicide methods. You can add to that the many blogs and websites that collect information specifically on spectacular or particularly grisly suicides, with pictures, diagrams, step-by-steps. Then add on top of that email lists and forums that discuss methods of suicide and in several well-known cases have had people following suicides live as they happen. After looking around at these sites, the Daily Telegraph piece seems like very small beer. (And of course, like many of your readers, I didn’t know it before, but have now Googled it to check your logic, thus pushing “suicide” further up the Telegraph’s list of “features people read”.)

    Moreover, the only specific case studies you cite (1996 and 1998) pre-date the entry of the internet into the majority of homes, and have little relevance in today’s world where people are (as you continuously celebrate in other contexts) free from dependence on magisterial news sources.

    Information wants to be free, you and many other members of this forum boldly state. You’re right. And to propose censorship – which, makes no bones about it, is what you are doing – is profoundly dangerous. Worse, what you’re doing is proposing censorship of mass media while advocating removal of all restriction, such as copyright law or libel law from unregulated and mostly unwatched small-scale internet sites. This will eventually destroy reporting (even Nick Davies, whose book has massive flaws, concedes that 20% of stories are reporter-originated) and lead us to a state of informational anarchy that will prioritise exactly this type of story and let rationality, taste and sense slip down the plughole. By all means condemn Charlotte Bailey, by name, in print – but calling for censorship is dangerous and wrong.

  9. Lee Mercer said,

    March 28, 2009 at 7:28 am

    See also Charlie Brooker’s recent Newswipe on the TV reporting of mass shootings (tinyurl.com/ctpo5n): “…every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder we expect to see one or two more within a week”. Condemning.

  10. muscleman said,

    March 28, 2009 at 7:37 am

    @ppower
    So you think the state of journalism in this country is all fine and dandy do you? A great many people disagree with you. Criticising Ben for examining one small corner of the huge stinking mass is being precious yourself. But I’m sure you’ll get over it.

    I saw that headline and decided I did not need to know the gory details. I’m not prurient, I just know too much physiology and have humanely dispatched too many animals.

  11. ogma1 said,

    March 28, 2009 at 7:40 am

    While it is sad that some people commit suicide after such articles,it is not the responsibility of the journalist to prevent these occurrences. Information on how to endure a relatively painless death is freely available on the internet, and this will only become more common a people realize that this info is available.

    Self-termination is a reasonable goal for many people today. It is less a commentary on the weakness of an individual than a commentary on a society where many people are simply unnecessary. We have advanced to a state where if a persons’ goals of self-actualization are not met, it is reasonable and noble to step out and allow another to self-actualize. This is an expected product of an advanced society. We should celebrate and aid these people rather than condemn them. Their choices allow greater freedom for all.

    Suicide is a noble goal for some. Those who seek it should be offered treatment (CBT, antidepressants, etc), and if these do not work, should be aided in their goal to leave the tribe. We are stronger for their loss, and we thank them for their aid.

  12. LadyL said,

    March 28, 2009 at 8:30 am

    As it happens, Ben, the Press Complaints Commission agreed with you, assuming the version you saw was online:

    www.pcc.org.uk/news/index.html?article=NTQ2Mw==

    The article was written by PA and syndicated to all the papers, so it’s possible that Charlotte Bailey had nothing to do with it.
    The reporter should have known not to include any of that detail. In the normal system it would have passed through enough people that it should have been taken out, although in this case it seems the copy was posted online without any checking.
    It’s a failure of the system, but not necessarily an indication that inquests should be closed – they’re an important part of the justice system that should be covered.
    However, I agree with my old editor, who never ran more than three pars of copy from suicides, she used to say it was nobody’s business.

  13. PhiJ said,

    March 28, 2009 at 8:38 am

    I didn’t get the impression that Ben was advocating censorship of the media in this area, just a lot more caution. Saying that people should stop reporting about suicides ‘badly’ rather than saying that people should be _made_ to stop reporting about suicides ‘badly’. I’ve had a second scan through the article, and I don’t think I’m wrong…

    Also, the problem doesn’t seem to be that people are being told about how to commit suicide as people are reading sensationalist stories which are in some way helping them to decide to do so. I’m sure that in the Australian case, everyone didn’t mysteriously forget that people had been throwing themselves under trains. I suppose it is possible that young people could be just starting to read the paper, and not have read the previous stories, but they’d still know you could throw yourself in front of a train if you liked. It is more likely to be that the stories in the newspapers weren’t around to egg them on when they felt suicidal. So even with the presence of the internet, the papers still have responsibility.

  14. ossian said,

    March 28, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Although some may, most depressed people don’t seak out information, when depressed one is far from pro-active, in fact there is an absense of action unless all energy and frustration is channeled.

    The print media is a broadcast medium in the sense that if you pick up a paper or pass a billboard you get the messages they have selected. This is a crucial difference. If I pick up a paper seaking distraction and get instructed on the romantic ideal of self destruction it may direct me in such a route. With the internet one selects the content, and even in the darkest hour many are selecting content that is a distraction not an inspiration. The figures on editor selected content reveal a clear message.

    I think there should be at least a code of practice enforced by the press regulator of the day (sadly the tragi-comic PCC today). The cost in human lives of getting this wrong is high and avoidable.

  15. drunkenoaf said,

    March 28, 2009 at 9:03 am

    @Dudley

    I think the point is that if people have the motivation to find out exotic suicide methods from the web, they can. The transaction is active, from person to source.

    Newspapers aren’t explicitly bought for suicide advice. But if a story sensationalising it is there, and there’s evidence that encourages suicides, that’s irresponsible journalism pushing death.

    It’s a bit like some of the explantions for suicides by people on antidepressant drugs. The drugs upped their function enough to permit the action of suicide. The newspapers can plant the idea, that it would be “successful”, and the methods without any extra active effort required on the person. That would appear to be enough to cross the threshold too..

  16. Gargantuan said,

    March 28, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Hi Ben, long time listener, first time caller.

    One thing that i’ve always speculated on is the concept of “Freedom of the Press” and how it’s become little more than an excuse for journalists and media outlets to hide behind while they willing misinform and hack their way towards headline success. I personally (perhaps like you) think the press is composed primarily of sub human scum and I can deliver more examples of scum-baggery than they can of Good-baggery. Consider the gauntlet thrown if any of them dare.

    Miltons concept of a free press stated “…that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. In order to be able to exercise this ration right, the individual must have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow men in “a free and open encounter.”

    I hope you can all see the two fundamental flaws in that. No, our fellow man is not capable of distinguishing right from wrong in complex technological, political, sociological and scientific debates… BECAUSE the press do not present the facts in a free and open manner. Yes, there are places to get that information, but laziness on behalf of the mass public and scheming on behalf of the media has resulted in a skewed one sided debate. But laziness can not be blamed here, it is the nefarious pro-activeness of the media, their unwillingness to do an honest days work that perpetuates fear, uncertainty and deceit. Perhaps some of you are thinking “For evil to succeeed it takes good men to do nothing”. This may be true, but it doesn’t excuse the people committing the evil acts.

    So here’s my proposal. Responsibility of the Press.

    It’s a simple concept. If you’re a journalist, you have to report. And you report your evidence. But you have a responsibility to collect evidence from both sides and offer a balanced argument. No more pure speculation on the front pages, no more headline grabbing lies. You still have all your freedom, only this time you can call Matthew Kelly a pedophile without sufficient evidence you bottom feeding crap bags.

    The media is important. As is science, medicine, law, engineering, health and safety. So it should have a code of conduct. There should be a journalistic method. And no matter how much media you own (I’m looking at you Rupert, and Berlusconi) you have to play by the rules.

    rant over.

  17. Gargantuan said,

    March 28, 2009 at 9:16 am

    that should have been “can’t call matthew kelly a pedophile”

  18. sarahditum said,

    March 28, 2009 at 9:32 am

    The editor of the New Of The World was on the R4 Media Show recently, claiming that the press had tightened up their compliance with the PCC’s guidelines on suicide reporting. Bollocks. The PCC is a toothless and reactive institution and the reporting on suicide continues to be sensational, celebratory and detailed.

    This is an issue that should be resolved by privacy and public interest, not censorship. Does the public have a need to learn about suicides that sufficient to overwhelm the bereaved family’s right to privacy and the risk of inspiring imitators? Of course there’s no comparison, and a press and a PCC that had a sense of journalistic ethics wouldn’t begin to abuse power in the way they do now.

    Self-regulation of the press is basically fail.

  19. AndyP said,

    March 28, 2009 at 9:34 am

    While I agree that the state of journalism in this country often leaves a lot to be desired, Charlotte Bailey’s article seems to be pretty factual, without making any attempt to glamourise suicide. If people were to commit suicide after reading it, they must have pretty much decided to do it anyway. It is not going to change someone from being OK one day to suicidal the next.

    When journalists print lies/half truths they should be taken to task for it, but they should not be censored just because certain facts may be uncomfortable or even offensive to some people.

    I do agree though that there is absolutely no reason they can’t add URL’s/phone numbers (to both the print and online versions) for organisations that can help, as is often done after TV programmes.

  20. Suw said,

    March 28, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Good grief. I am really shocked. Not by Ben’s column but by the comments after!

    Ben’s not calling for coroners’ courts to be closed, or for suicides to not be reported, but that they be reported responsibly. And I cannot quite see how one would misread his piece such that one would think he was suggesting either of those as suitable outcomes.

    And for those saying “this information is out there so reporting suicides in gory detail is ok” are somewhat missing the point. This isn’t about information. If someone is determined to take their own life, they will figure out some way to do it. As I understand it, the problem with copycats is not that they previously lacked the information, but that prior to the first suicide being reported, there weren’t the social cues that told them “Hey, suicide is ok, and it works”.

    I did go and read the Telegraph article, and it is needlessly detailed. From the headline on down, its clear that the focus is on the way that Mr Phyall died, not his possible reasons or his circumstances, which are given but a brief mention. It was utterly unnecessary to go into such detail, and so the only conclusion one is left to draw is that Ms Bailey and her editor thought that those gory details would attract readers.

    That is totally, utterly wrong.

    Issues like suicide need to be dealt with sensitively, thoughtfully, and ethically. The Telegraph’s behaviour was none of those things.

  21. sarahditum said,

    March 28, 2009 at 10:06 am

    And not only is the Telegraph piece a suicide manual, the “related stories” is a mini-catalogue of methods. I wonder exactly which readers those navigation tools are helping out.

  22. SteveGJ said,

    March 28, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Ben,
    you do an excellent job when exposing poor scientific reporting, especially in the medical field. However, once this strays into areas of wider social policy then I think your, no doubt well intended, views strike me as not well thought through. What seems to be being promoted here is something that goes beyond mere attacking of bad practice to something that might politely be called paternalistic nannying through something very close to social management and censorship. We already have bans on reporting in family courts, which are no doubt well intended, but have also meant that many cases of miscarriage of justice go unknown to the wider world. Individuals are unable to even identify themselves due to court constraints. To prevent media reporting in coroners courts, you are going to have to introduce similar restrictions. If, as appears to being proposed in the attached article, even verdict and means are to be kept out of Newspaper headlines let alone follow up articles.

    I think maybe you ought to come to terms with life being something of a struggle. There will be people affected by headline items, whatever they are. Maybe some will be positive (will there be a reduction in deaths from cervical cancer following Jade Goody’s untimely death?), some will be negative. But introducing a system of state sponsored censorship, which is unambiguously what you want to do, even if well intended, is an enormous step. There are plenty of others in the wings who would also wish, and can make compelling cases on narrow grounds, for other such restrictions.

    You are in the medical profession, you have a duty of care to your patients, but that does not mean you are any better placed to manage and censor public media than anybody else. Short term peaks in suicides following particular media reporting is one thing, but can you be sure that the long term rate is increased? Are you going to make the case that even one extra death is too many? If not, is it ten more cases? The attached item even appeared to suggest that showing a suicide in a popular TV programme was causative of a short term increase in suicides. Are we to introduce censorship in dramas to prevent this sort of “copy cat” behaviour? Are you really ready for the effects of state controlled management of media that you appear to be advocating?

    I remain convinced that state controlled censorship is in general a dangerous, slippery slope, and that its use is only justified in the most exceptional circumstances. I don’t think that short term increases in suicides or a distaste for prurient reporting is sufficient.

    I remain convinced that the best way to deal with this is to hold the reporters and media outlets to account. Ultimately, there can be civil cases for damages in the more extreme cases. It may be imperfect, it may not always succeed, but I think that it is a far, far better way than the dangerous route that you appear to be promoting with what is a column containing a large emotional content with statistics relevant to one particular aspect of this (increased suicides) without much thought for other, wider ramifications.

    One of the deeply difficult things about social policies is that it is impossible to analyse all the implications. I trained in Physics, so I am a reductionist by nature. However, I think that also informs me as to the limitations of the approach, and this narrow use of statistics to justify the introduction of state-sponsored media controls is abusive of scientific methodology (one that much of the social sciences is guilty).

  23. ppower said,

    March 28, 2009 at 10:20 am

    A common feature in Ben and his supporters arguments is that detail is included that is not necessary. We the dumb public would like to judge for ourselves what is necessary and will tailor our reading habits accordingly.
    Middle class twits on certain national newspapers naturally consider themselves above the common herd and feel it their duty to filter what we read. Medical professionals are just a more extreme version of the same thing. No thanks, Ben, I would rather my news straight than than the the watered down version you would consider safe for me to read.

  24. elfy said,

    March 28, 2009 at 10:32 am

    I can’t access the cited research, but I was wondering: do they show any significant increase in the overall number of suicides – say, in a year with lots of coverage – rather than the timings of the suicides? I’m just wondering whether a major suicide story might cause people who are having suicidal thoughts to act on them then, but they would have acted on them at some point anyway.

    ppower: go on, justify how it’s ‘necessary’ to publish the gory details of a suicide. You might enjoy reading it, but that’s not the same thing at all.

  25. Tom Salinsky said,

    March 28, 2009 at 10:53 am

    My Google search brought up an adjudication from the PCC which demonstrates that guidelines already exist for this kind of reporting which the Telegraph flatly ignored. Just what else can anybody do to stop this happening again?

    Weirdly, the Telegraph’s own coverage of the PCC adjudication asserts that the offending article had been removed from their website, but it clearly hasn’t as I’ve just read it. What gives?

    Cheers

    Tom

  26. ppower said,

    March 28, 2009 at 11:06 am

    The weasel word ‘necessary’ is what is most objectionable. It can mean anything or nothing and news cannot be censored on insubstantial, nanny knows best, contempt for the public. The details in this particular case may be grisly, but they are the facts, whatever your reaction to them.
    There will always be people who get satisfaction from tragic events such as this but that is not a good enough reason for the draconian measures suggested by Ben.
    It has to be left to editors to make these decisions.

  27. pv said,

    March 28, 2009 at 11:15 am

    ppower said,
    March 28, 2009 at 10:20 am

    A common feature in Ben and his supporters arguments is that detail is included that is not necessary. We the dumb public would like to judge for ourselves what is necessary and will tailor our reading habits accordingly.
    Middle class twits on certain national newspapers naturally consider themselves above the common herd and feel it their duty to filter what we read. Medical professionals are just a more extreme version of the same thing. No thanks, Ben, I would rather my news straight than than the the watered down version you would consider safe for me to read.

    In a world where only you exist then you might have a point. In a society where “dog eat dog” is the underlying moral principle, then maybe you would have a point. But sadly for you the world is populated by other people who live in a functioning society where there are certain obligations to others in order to maintain the functioning of that society for the benefit of everyone in it.
    In a perfect world I’m not broadly in favour of censorship. But the world isn’t perfect and anyway we aren’t talking about global censorship here because the details you so desire would still be obtainable, but not publicly broadcast. Perhaps in your perfect world children should be given free access to the most explicitly violent material. I take it you will be the first in line to offer appropriate help to those whose lives are blighted by it.
    The long and short of your position is that vulnerable people shouldn’t be protected from themselves and others. You have a right to have every snippet of information published in an easily accessible place and presented to you on a plate – so that you don’t have to get off your arse and look for it.

  28. Dr Jim said,

    March 28, 2009 at 11:23 am

    The media discussion of such violent acts is itself an overt form of violence. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s book ‘Violence’, which I’ve attempted to summarise previously, describes such violence as ‘systemic violence’, the type of violence that is ingrained in society, government policy and rhetoric; an analogy for which is it being the elephant upon which sits a Tick (that embodies the more overt forms of violence: riot, murder, rape).

  29. Dudley said,

    March 28, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Suw said:

    “Ben’s not calling for coroners’ courts to be closed, or for suicides to not be reported, but that they be reported responsibly. And I cannot quite see how one would misread his piece such that one would think he was suggesting either of those as suitable outcomes.”

    (Apologies if half-arsed HTML attempt doesn’t work).

    Suw, Ben says, above: “The media have made it quite clear that they cannot be trusted to report sensibly on coroners’ inquests, and so they have made it quite clear that they should be expelled from them.”

    That is calling for coroners’ courts to be closed.

  30. Dudley said,

    March 28, 2009 at 11:30 am

    @Gargantuan:

    But you have a responsibility to collect evidence from both sides and offer a balanced argument.

    That seems to be quite difficult in the case of a suicide.

    Also, as many other articles on this site will attest, the “see both sides of the story” mentality is actually damaging to factual reporting.

  31. kim said,

    March 28, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Ben, I am very glad to see you publishing this piece. I come from Bridgend, and one of the things that has made me angry over the past year has been the reporting of the Bridgend suicides, for two reasons: 1. It was frequently sensational and inaccurate 2. The method of suicide (hanging) was always mentioned, contrary to the PCC guidelines on this.

    Carole Cadwalladr did a brilliant piece on this. It is almost certainly the case that the reporting of the Bridgend suicides influenced more young people in the area to kill themselves. Worse, she suggests that it may have influenced young people throughout the country to kill themselves, but we just haven’t seen the statistical evidence yet. The whole reporting of the suicides was a disgrace.

    Here’s the Cadwalladr piece: www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/01/bridgend-wales-youth-suicide-media-ethics

  32. Ben Goldacre said,

    March 28, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    hi there

    just to be clear, i’m certainly not suggesting that coverage of suicide per se should be banned, far from it, i think it is a good thing to discuss it sensibly, and i am not suggesting that the entire internet should be censored or that suicide instruction sites should be removed. i think there is a very big difference between the impact of information which is out there if you actively seek it, and information which is actively delivered to your house through mass media.

    and you’re absolutely right, my suggestion that the press should be banned from coroners courts outright is poorly thought through. the end goal is that they should write about this kind of thing a bit more sensibly. shaming them or regulating them might be another route to make this more likely, and i’d be pleased to hear if people had any other ideas.

  33. biggerpills said,

    March 28, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    @Lee Mercer 7: I was reminded of the Brooker piece too, it’s excellent.

    Good points on the use of language. Depression and suicide are covered insensitively enough as it is, the issues don’t need added drama or edutainment-style reporting, and the people affected by them certainly don’t need to be judged by thoughtless journalists.

    The crass phrase I find most offensive is “battle against cancer”. It implies that anyone can “beat” cancer with a bit of willpower, and that anyone who dies from it just wasn’t trying hard enough. From personal experience I have seen how this can give people false hope, and have been told that a relative of mine “gave up in the end” when her cancer was simply untreatable. Media reporting of depression had given people similar misconceptions which sufferers could do without.

  34. LeGioN said,

    March 28, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    @ogmal

    “While it is sad that some people commit suicide after such articles, it is not the responsibility of the journalist to prevent these occurrences.”

    It is not ‘sad that some people commit suicide after such articles’, it’s a tragedy; a tragedy that, if you had actually read the above article, can be mitigated through responsible (not censored) journalism. Your suggestion that journalists have no responsibility for what they write is astounding. Everyone is responsible for their actions and must also be able to account for them if called to do so. Journalists are no exception.

    “Information on how to endure a relatively painless death is freely available on the internet, and this will only become more common a people realize that this info is available.”

    True, there are plenty of web sites that provide information on how to commit suicide, but you won’t find them whilst searching for ‘apple pudding recipes’, will you. You will only find them if you are actively looking for them, and act on their advice only if you where already thinking of suicide. I read newspapers for their informed comment on what is happening in the world and to put these events into context (a possibly naïve expectation from me, I know). If newspapers are prohibited from providing details on how to make a car bomb (indeed, disseminating such information can lead to a lengthy spell in prison), then why should they be permitted to give explicit ‘how-to’ guides on committing suicide, when suicides account for more deaths per year than do acts of terrorism.

    “Self-termination is a reasonable goal for many people today.”

    Hooray for all those reasonable suicide bombers!

    Owning your own home, raising a family and wanting financial security are all reasonable goals for many people today. Committing suicide is not.

    Children who want to be firemen, doctors, or astronauts when they grow up have reasonable goals. No person in a reasonable frame of mind would think, “one day, in the future, I’m going to commit suicide. Not today, though, because I am quite happy at the moment”. Suicide attempts occur at a time when a person is at their most un-reasonable, when they are unable to see a solution to their problems through the fog of depression.

    “It is less a commentary on the weakness of an individual than a commentary on a society where many people are simply unnecessary.”

    Are these unnecessary people the same as Jews, blacks or the disabled? You know, ‘inferior people’.

    “We have advanced to a state where if a persons’ goals of self-actualization are not met, it is reasonable and noble to step out and allow another to self-actualize.”

    You confuse self-actualisation with a persons’ perceived, or potential worth, or productivity, within society, which not only shows your ignorance of the facts, but also has the whiff of eugenics about it.

    Self-actualisation is not a ‘goal’, but is at the top of a hierarchy of ‘needs’ by which a person must progress in order to define themselves in the world and society. The lower levels of this hierarchy are concerned with the needs for basic survival; breathing, eating, safety, etc. Once these needs are catered for, a person can then move up the hierarchy by acquiring friends, social acceptance, a family, etc. Further up the hierarchy, a person will seek recognition for their achievements or competence, at which point they can move to the top of the hierarchy and be described as self-actualised – they embrace reality and facts rather than denying truth; they are spontaneous; they are interested in solving problems; they are accepting of themselves and others and lack prejudice.

    At no point in the hierarchy do those ahead need to commit suicide in order to let those below progress. There are not a finite number of self-actualised people at any one time, like seats on a bus, where a passenger must get off the bus (suicide) before another can board.

    “This is an expected product of an advanced society. We should celebrate and aid these people rather than condemn them. Their choices allow greater freedom for all.”

    Words fail me.

    “Suicide is a noble goal for some. Those who seek it should be offered treatment (CBT, antidepressants, etc), and if these do not work, should be aided in their goal to leave the tribe. We are stronger for their loss, and we thank them for their aid.”

    Surely, by not doing more to help the suicidal we reveal our weaknesses, not our strengths. Our strength is measured by how we treat the ill, the elderly and those who are less capable of looking after themselves, and not by how fast we can shake off our responsibilities to them.

  35. smowton said,

    March 28, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    A lot of people seem to be complaining about freedom of speech and censorship. As a (fairly arbitrarily chosen) example, Steve GJ says:

    “What seems to be being promoted here is something that goes beyond mere attacking of bad practice to something that might politely be called paternalistic nannying through something very close to social management and censorship.”

    The core argument seems to be that people aren’t stupid, they can choose what they want to read appropriately, and in this specific case, they can elect not to read gaudy reporting of suicides.

    However, whilst there certainly are those who espouse social policy on the assumption that people are naive and stupid and in need of a guiding hand from the state, I think those making the argument for personal choice are going too far the other way.

    The research cited clearly shows that whilst there is no doubt a faction of society which will choose wisely not to read macabre suicide stories when they’re feeling depressed, there are also those that don’t, and that there are real consequences.

    Therefore it comes down to a matter of social responsibility. No matter how wisely you choose your reading matter, and how much you want to trust others to choose theirs wisely, your action (reporting a grisly suicide) has a consequence, which you now know about, and therefore which it is your responsibility to consider.

    It’s almost precisely the same as the MMR stuff. You raise a vaccine scare, and it has been repeatedly shown that you cause people to die, so it’s your responsibility not to. You blow up a relatively inconsequential death (as are most deaths) for the sake of voyeurism, and people die, so it’s your responsibility not to do that, either.

    You might not like the fact that your action has this consequence, you might feel that it’s regrettable, or that the consequence imposes odious restrictions on your actions, but the fact is it does have that consequence and you cannot justify citing lofty principles to ignore it.

  36. muscleman said,

    March 28, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    @AndyP
    Did you read the stats Ben cited? if so then on what basis do you assert that reporting the details of suicide does not lead to the increases in suicide documented by the studies cited? Try opening your mind to evidence.

  37. Michael_K_Vegfruit said,

    March 28, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    I write for a specialist industry publication. One of the types of stories we try to cover is fatal accidents. Our aim is to explain why the accident happened, so that other companies and individuals working in the same industry can avoid making the same mistakes.

    One of the obstacles to doing that is lack of access to coroners’ courts. We have the right to attend the inquest and take our own notes (as anyone does). However, there are financial obstacles. The industry we cover only really attracts around 20,000 readers internationally. That means we can only afford two full time editorial staff, and can’t lose someone from the office for a week to work on a single story.

    Perversely, newspapers and wire services that make their money from bloody spectacle like this can afford more staff, and can send people to attend court. The popularity of this type of reporting justifies the cost.

    The result of this is I frequently see stories in the press that lay blame for accidents unfairly or inaccurately. Typically, they seek simplistic explanations, rather than recognising that most accidents of this type are caused by a complex mix of technical and organisational failures.

    That then feeds into public pressure on politicians to implement legislation that fails to address the actual causes of the accident, but does impose additional costs on business. Those costs mean that resources that could be used to increase safety are incorrectly allocated.

    Coroner’s courts produce transcripts, but they are only made available to ‘interested parties’. It’s up to the coroner to decide, with no real possibility of appeal or argument, what consists an ‘interested party’.

    If these transcripts were routinely freely available, we could report more accurately on why accidents had happened. I feel that would help prevent future fatalities. When the regular press misrepresented an inquest, we could show how they had got it wrong.

    I guess people will say I have a personal interest in this: I do, I get paid (not that much, but enough) for writing the sort of article I’m talking about. In a society where anyone could read any inquest transcript online though, it wouldn’t just be my report, or a popular newspaper’s report, that would explain what had happened.

    As Ben argued here only a couple of weeks ago, anyone who wanted to could examine the evidence, and hold the press to account when they got it wrong.

    The sort of report Ben is objecting to here is obscene and immoral. It is terribly sad that families see their relatives lives reduced to the gruesome details of their deaths. But, those details will always find their way into the public realm (see, for example, how the identity of Baby P’s parent/murderers have been transmitted widely by SMS, despite the court restriction on reporting them, for the sake of his surviving siblings).

    At least by making more, rather than less, information available, the gruesome details can be understood in their proper context.

  38. fionn said,

    March 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Sorry, Ben, I can’t help but feel you miss the mark a little with this one.

    I dislike sensationalistic coverage as much as the next person, and the vulture-like image it gives me of such journalists. In fact, another thing I dislike about sensationalism in journalism is the sometimes erratic moral positions that people take on suicide… sometimes denouncing the suicide as selfish in light of the effects it had on family members, when that simply isn’t the role that journalists ought to play in such a thing. Further, as someone who is not of the opinion that suicide is categorically irrational, and symptomatic, even indicative, of mental illness – as someone who believes there are rational appreciable and respectable reasons why an able bodied, healthy person might want to kill themselves – I think the press can often assume that mental illness plays a role far too soon, especially in the general observations that arise out of reportage of specific cases. I think the whole vocabulary, therefore, of the reportage of suicide is systematically biased and ill equipped to deal with a phenomenon as sensitive and powerful as suicide.

    But I don’t know if I agree even that we can or should expect writers at large not to write about suicide in specific ways.

    I think the Sorrows of Young Werthe is better off published than not, and the actions of a few impressionable men is no argument against its publication. I sometimes read, for instance, Chuck Palahniuk novels, in one of which the protagonist is an amateur Samaritan help-line operator who *en*courages his clients rather than discouraging them, and gives them just the sort of instructions that Bailey gave out. And it’s damn funny, in a shocking way. I can also imagine it’s extremely distasteful, in almost the same way Bailey was. But I don’t think potential resultant suicides are an argument against that, either.

    I think the best argument against bad coverage of suicide is *that* it’s bad coverage, not that it causes deaths. There is something truly insipid and disgusting about the way journalists often shamelessly exploit disasters, deaths, suicides and terminal illnesses for a cheap, emotionally charged story. Perhaps that’s simply moralistic. It is, I think. But it’s also, largely, correct, as far as I can see.

  39. muscleman said,

    March 28, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    People free speech does not have to be a zero sum game, so you can dismantle the barricades and step out from behind them. Information can be freely available if you look but not splashed all over the front page. Free speech and freedom of information is not freedom to shout about it. The old adage of your free speech not extending to shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre is an example of this.

    Back in the day reporting of things like incest cases or paedophilia in the newspapers was in codewords and tucked away in the boring bits. The details were still available, the court proceedings were still pubic documents and public galleries still there and available in the courts. The argument is not free speech vs censorship, it is where the crowded theatres are in our society and this is clearly, as the stats show us, one of those. Get a grip.

  40. pv said,

    March 28, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    fionn said,
    March 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    But I don’t know if I agree even that we can or should expect writers at large not to write about suicide in specific ways.

    The question is not whether something should be published. It is more a question of the appropriate medium and forum. Also I’d say that news journalists are not “writers at large”.
    Some people consider that in a civil society we have a duty to protect the most vulnerable members. There is a reason why you can’t find detailed instructions on how to make weapons and bombs in daily newspapers, even though the information is freely available elsewhere if you want to look. There is a reason why you can’t find graphic images of penetrative sex in daily newspapers, even though it doesn’t involve any rocket science to find full length movies on the Internet. The reasons are not substantially different from the reasons that graphic descriptions of suicide methods shouldn’t be published in newspapers.
    Why put the most vulnerable at risk in order to satisfy the whims of the lazy?

  41. Michael_K_Vegfruit said,

    March 28, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    I get the point that newspapers (still) have a special position as many people’s main source of information on the wider world. I understand why some people think it’s important that they are made to use that special position carefully.

    The problem is, how should they be regulated, and who should do it? To look at the specific instance Ben is talking about (coroner’s inquests on suicides), imagine a case where someone has committed suicide after failing to receive adequate mental health care. Would you want the same state that is at fault to have the ability to suppress widespread reporting of the coroner’s findings? Would you want the coroner himself, who is part of the same profession as the doctors who failed the imaginary patient, to have that power?

    Imagine a case where someone committed suicide as a result of a terrible family life. Would you give the family that had bullied or abused them into taking their own life the power to stop the inquest being reported on?

    If you don’t like what a paper writes, don’t buy it. If you really don’t like it, encourage your community to do the same thing as the people of liverpool still do, twenty years after Hillsborough, and maintain a widespread boycott.

  42. JQH said,

    March 28, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Does reporting of suicides influence the decision as to whether to commit suicide, or just the means?

    Reason I ask is, back in the 80s an “Eastenders” character attempted suicide with booze and pills. According to the tabloids at the time this led to an increase on people ODing. IIRC it eventually turned out that while there was an increase un ODs there was a corresponding decrease in attempted hangings, jumping under trains etc.

    I will agree that reporting of suicide is too sensationalist though. I still remember the Sunday Abscess’ linking of the Bridgend suicides to mobile phone masts. Though on that occasion they had just copied out a press release from a seller of tin-foil helmets.

  43. NelC said,

    March 28, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    From my distant youth, I recall a book of Victorian newspaper articles about suicides, illustrated by woodcuts of bizarre suicide machines the poor souls had constructed, usually featuring decapitation and in some instances head-crushing mechanisms. It was sold in Woolworths, and I spent more time than was probably healthy browsing through it, marvelling at the twisted genius it took to either build these contraptions or make up the stories about them.

    Ugh. What an unpleasant memory to drag up. I must go and seek sunshine, kittens and ice-cream….

  44. Diversity said,

    March 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Calling all lawyers who take injury cases and want to make their name.

    If the reseaerch is as clear as it seems to be above, the relatives of someone who made a copy-cat suicide attempt after seeing a media report would seem to have a good chance of collecting damages against the media concerned; on the grounds that the media could reasonably have foreseen the consequences of publishing.

  45. kim said,

    March 28, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    JQH – I think the means is important as well. One of the noticeable features of the Bridgend suicides was that they all hanged themselves. This is a common method of suicide among men, but rare among women, yet the young women who killed themselves all chose hanging as the method.

    To people who are talking about freedom of speech, you ought to bear in mind that there are already PCC guidelines on this (recently updated) and they are very clear about the need not to sensationalise reporting and to say as little as possible about the method used. And I don’t quite see why the freedom to report the means by which someone killed themselves in minute detail is more important than the need to prevent vulnerable people from copying it.

  46. sausage gnocchi said,

    March 28, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    I’ve just googled “Charlotte Bailey chainsaw” and now I know exactly how to kill myself with a chainsaw.

    Partly because of Charlotte Bailey writing about it – partly because of you drawing attention to it. And partly because of Google indexing newspapers.

    It’s a minefield – there’s simply no way I can see you can write this story without basically doing what you’re criticising.

    Er.. Close down google?

  47. fionn said,

    March 28, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    pv, yeah!

    I appreciate your argument. I think the sorts of things you’re saying are likely to be instrumental to working out and assessing standards of reportage for cases like this, and that’s very much where we should be looking for justifying our disgust for the sorts of reporting that Ben talked about here.

    My point was a little broader, though, right? It was that you can’t get a prima facie argument against publicaton of material which is likely to have a sufficient causal role in increased suicide just from that causal role. Many people would say (I think Ben said) that the fact that a publication is likely to cause more suicides is a reason why it shouldn’t be published.

    I have a problem with that. I can think of plenty other sorts of writing that would be objectionable, because, for instance, it romanticizes suicide, or glorifies it, and might, when it comes down to the empirics, actually be shown to have a causal role in encouraging it, but which ought not for that reason alone to be suppressed.

    It’s not really a freedom of speech thing for me. It’s that I don’t find the (consequentialist) argument compelling. It ought, for me, never to be an objection against publishing any piece of writing that someone might be inclined to kill themselves if I do.

    I could have compelling evidence, for instance, that the world will end tomorrow. THAT might cause mass suicides, but I’d still think people ought to know.

    The prospect of causing mass suicides isn’t, for me, an overriding moral consideration, as it would for instance if it was genocide, or something like that.

    It occurs to me now though that perhaps there might be persuasive arguments against my position from similar cases with hate-speech.

  48. fionn said,

    March 28, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    pv wrote:

    Some people consider that in a civil society we have a duty to protect the most vulnerable members.

    I guess it hinges on this. I think that’s an honourable sentiment, and I think it certainly supports your argument about the appropriateness of specific contexts for specific sorts of content.

    But I don’t think it’s an overriding duty, even in a civil society. In fact, in this specific case, I find it has very limited scope.

  49. lasker said,

    March 28, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    This man chose a very exotic method of killing himself. Presumably he did so because he wanted it to be reported. He wanted to send a message to the world about the unfairness of his position.

    Charlotte bailey and the Telegraph helped him complete his plan.

    Your argument is that such reporting runs the risk of copycats but would anyone else be tempted by such an extreme idea? This is life stranger than any fiction. Have there actually been further cases of this?

    This was a very strange person with very strange thoughts. I feel sorry for his family and friends for whose emotions he showed complete disregard.

    I dont know if Samaritans could have deterred anyone this disturbed and determined but I would back any move to have sources of help prominently displayed within articles of this kind. Are there any pressure groups pushing for this? Why is this not routine editorial policy?

  50. MagdaDH said,

    March 28, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I am rather disappointed with Dr Ben here… as several commenters before me stated, this is not about whether the sensationalist/extensive reporting of suicide increases the number of copy-cat ones (I am, for the purpose of this argument, assuming it does).

    It’s about whether, as Fionn said, such causal connection is enough to censor such reporting, in principle.

    LeGioN

    Or, in other words, whether we (as a society) should attempt to protect other grown-up people from themselves, not directly when observing somebody just about to kill themselves; but by *universally* restricting access to particular pices of information, tools, substances or places.

    Thus, we are on the territory of values rather than facts, and usualy it’s almost impossible to succesfully argue values.

    But this way of thinking, especially in a current political climate where we are all in danger (and in process) of losing many liberties, looks to me like a beggining of one of those slippery slopes that, ultimately, may lead to banning of all kinds of things *for our own good*.

  51. fionn said,

    March 28, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    LeGioN said,

    Surely, by not doing more to help the suicidal we reveal our weaknesses, not our strengths. Our strength is measured by how we treat the ill, the elderly and those who are less capable of looking after themselves, and not by how fast we can shake off our responsibilities to them.

    This assumes, as you have done throughout your post, that suicide is never justified, rational or respectable as a personal decision.

    It is not ‘sad that some people commit suicide after such articles’, it’s a tragedy; a tragedy that, if you had actually read the above article, can be mitigated through responsible (not censored) journalism. Your suggestion that journalists have no responsibility for what they write is astounding. Everyone is responsible for their actions and must also be able to account for them if called to do so. Journalists are no exception.

    That’s not what ogmal said, though, right? Ogmal said that journalists are, of course, responsible for what they write, but that the suicidal actions of others are something for which journalists ought not to be responsible.

    I think we can object to articles of this sort on the basis of tastefulness, but not on the basis that it might (or even does) play a causal role in further suicidal behaviour, since I’m not sure suicides are something which are categorically wrong, nor something of overriding moral seriousness.

    If newspapers are prohibited from providing details on how to make a car bomb (indeed, disseminating such information can lead to a lengthy spell in prison), then why should they be permitted to give explicit ‘how-to’ guides on committing suicide, when suicides account for more deaths per year than do acts of terrorism.

    The important reason why these two phenomena are different is that self-killing isn’t universally considered nearly as morally objectionable as other-killing. Some people, like myself, don’t consider it to be objectionable in most cases.

    Owning your own home, raising a family and wanting financial security are all reasonable goals for many people today. Committing suicide is not.

    Respectfully, you have to do a lot more work to justify that attitude. There is a long philosophical tradition on the subject of suicide, in which the reasonableness of some forms of suicide is often defended. To state categorically that committing suicide is never reasonable is to pre-empt exactly the sort of discussion which is central to determining the correctness of Ben’s point.

    I recommend the Stanford article on the suicide. It’s quite comprehensive.
    Read, also, Hume’s famous defenses of suicide…

    Are these unnecessary people the same as Jews, blacks or the disabled? You know, ‘inferior people’.

    Ho hum. I sincerely doubt, even if the eugenecist goals you’ve peremptorily attributed to ogmal really did belong to him/her, that merely neglecting to oppose suicide would be a very effective way of achieving them. Further, I think this sort of inflammatory comment is sort of unnecessary, no?

    Children who want to be firemen, doctors, or astronauts when they grow up have reasonable goals. No person in a reasonable frame of mind would think, “one day, in the future, I’m going to commit suicide. Not today, though, because I am quite happy at the moment”.

    I don’t find that point intuitively compelling. I can quite easily conceive of many cases in which I would be likely to kill myself, should the wind change. There are many conditions which, if they are met, will raise the option of suicide for me. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say that, being a person who leads a happy and fulfilling life as I am. In fact, the supposition that to consider such options would be, even for me, categorically irrational is a point I don’t receive very well. It’s a bit… ideological, shall we say?

  52. perspix said,

    March 28, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Just a question.

    Are we sure that reporting details of high profile suicides increases the suicide rate? A high profile suicide by a reported method may increase suicides by that method, but that’s not the same thing.

    Did the 17% increase in overdoses mentioned in this article represent an increase in total suicides or did it cannibalise the figures for other methods?

    I’m asking as I can’t read those paywall links provided and would like to have had this clarified.

  53. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 29, 2009 at 12:51 am

    Does Stephen Fry count in the discussion? See “BBC News Online – Entertainment” web page, news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/5202066.stm

    Of course he’d stopped doing [Jeeves and Wooster] by then, so how much would we have missed? :-)

  54. jodyaberdein said,

    March 29, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Re: JQH

    As I recall the cited increase after a ‘Casualty’ episode was perhaps because the episode involved self poisoning with Paraquat, a particularly nasty, totally untreatable poison (unlike the usual one I experience treating which is paracetamol, merely a nasty partially treatable poison). Hence merely by altering the chosen method there was an effect on ‘success’ rate.

    Re: Fionn

    In a civil society the protection of the most vulnerable members has a limited scope, particularly with reference to not reporting details of suicide attempts, even though such reporting seems to increase successful suicide attempts, because the gains to society are…..?

  55. Indy said,

    March 29, 2009 at 6:17 am

    Thanks LeGioN, I was about to start a long rebuttal or @omgal’s post – you’ve a’ready done it.

    I think a point has been missed: the media do not report every happening in society, and in fact some things that are not reported are probably just as newsworthy. Surely the slippery slope arguement falls over because of this – we already have de facto censorship, and we don’t expect a detailed list of stories that remain unpublished. Therefore, a decision not to publish a gory description of a tragedy does not immediately lead up to a reduction in freedom of speech.

  56. Jeesh42 said,

    March 29, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I think the people here that are defending journalists’ rights to seek out information and publish freely have a point.

    But they are missing two bigger points. The first has been made by other commentators: if people (like ppower) think it’s okay to print gory details because readers “will judge for themselves what’s necessary”, then this is ignoring the evidence (i.e. the real world, not the world we’d like to live in) in favour of some lofty ideology. Having some restraint isn’t some BS middle-class paternalism/censorship – people are really dying when they don’t have to.

    The second point, which I think many commentators have ignored here when defending journalists like Charlotte Bailey, is that these same journalists already claim to adhere to the PCC code of conduct (which says don’t print gory details). This means they say they don’t do what Ben rightly points out they are doing. This is the hypocrisy of mainstream media at its worst.

    People like ppower are arguing about the right of journalists to write whatever gory details they want when the same journalists are ostensibly saying that they shouldn’t and that they don’t. From what I can see, Ben is merely pointing out the huge lie here.

  57. kim said,

    March 29, 2009 at 11:30 am

    The trouble is people keep talking about the rights of adults to make decisions about their own lives. But very often the people we’re talking about here are not adults, they’re children. Many of the Bridgend suicides were teenagers. That age group is very very susceptible to peer pressure – even in something as extreme as suicide. Think of how the parents of those children feel now. Is all that sensationalist reporting justified in the name of freedom of speech?

  58. Michael_K_Vegfruit said,

    March 29, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    People like ppower are arguing about the right of journalists to write whatever gory details they want

    It’s not a question of the rights of journalists*, but of universal speech rights and freedom of information. Those rights and freedoms do have negative effects, as outlined here.

    The way to correct those negative effects isn’t to restrict speech or to limit access to information, but to use those rights and freedoms yourself to counter those negative effects. See, for example, how the blogosphere here (in the UK) managed to force at least some sort of apology out of the Sunday Express over its story on the Dunblane survivors or the recent US sceptics’ campaign to force the Washington Post to correct George Will’s climate change denialism (which at least shamed them into publishing counter arguments).

    Maybe rather than wasting time arguing for more state control here, some of the people who thing the Telegraph got the coverage of this story wrong could try mounting a campaign to shame them into committing to treat stories of this type better in future?


    *I think, in fact, that special rights for journalists (such as shield laws), based on their professional status, detract from those universal rights and freedoms. They give journalists a privileged position and make it harder for others to respond to them.

  59. The Biologista said,

    March 29, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Two relatives of mine have killed themselves during my lifetime. It’s hard to put across the damage that fact does by itself. It would be sickening to me if their deaths had been reported in the manner of this poor man. So cynical, opportunistic and voyeuristic… and the potential damage done to others by such detail shows gross irresponsibility. Of course journalists cannot be deprived access to such data and detail- they must know the truth- but in this case the motive for reporting in this manner must be questioned. I cannot fathom what benefit there was to this. Somewhere there are people grieving this man, and now they have to suffer him becoming an instruction manual for the propagation of more pain. Disgusting really.

  60. kim said,

    March 29, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    To take an analogous example, do we expect reporters on bomb explosions to detail exactly how a bomb was made? Would that be desirable?

  61. Ian Glendinning said,

    March 29, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Ben,
    Interesting that it takes an intensely personal story to get this difficult subject onto Bad Science, and interesting that many of your commenters react to your not-thought-through “censorship” call. This is the real paradox.

    You (Ben) “know” that objective information is dangerous stuff, yet science practically worships it. There are more important values than objectivity. Truth is more than objective facts, like “benefit” as the previous commenter suggests. Hard for scientists (and even journalists) to learn “what is good” when their whole value system is trained to ignore it.

  62. sponias said,

    March 29, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    I write many articles about suicide prevention. The most popular keywords for people that have suicidal thoughts are: “how to commit suicide”, and “suicide methods”.

    One of my articles has a very good ranking because its title is “immediate suicide prevention”, and most depressed people look also for the keywords “immediate or instant suicide”. So, I managed to get their attention using their favorite keywords, while helping them stop thinking about suicide.

    By giving detailed instructions about how anyone can follow the bad example of someone who committed suicide, this reporter is giving to the weak suiciders everything they need to dare giving an end to their own lives. Her irresponsibility is a true crime.

    www.scientificdreaminterpretation.com

  63. kim said,

    March 29, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    The one thing I wanted to add is that maybe Ben is being a bit unfair on Charlotte Bailey. We don’t know who she is; she may be young and inexperienced. It was the job of sub or news editor to make sure that all that detail didn’t make it into the final copy.

  64. The Biologista said,

    March 29, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    Ian Glendinning,
    Whilst I question the benefit of publishing the gory details in a news report, I would not question such a description in a scientific paper if it were used as data. These are two very different kinds of publication. The first is meant to inform the average person, who cannot conceivably benefit from such detail unless it is as some form of entertainment. The second is to inform the specialist, who has the capacity to draw meaningful information from such detail. We are concerned with the first case.

    Your assertion that scientists are trained to ignore “what is good” when it comes to the reporting of verifiable truth is also false. Take a look at the instructions for authors for any major microbiology journal, for example, and you will find guidelines designed to prevent the publication of data relating to biological weapons. We are not oblivious to the potential harm caused by the truth.

  65. Psythe said,

    March 29, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    The Cadwalladr piece does ask whether its just a coincidence that the highest number of Bridgend suicides occured exactly at the time of the highest level of media coverage. Obviously this is not the case, but the pertinent question is did A cause B or vice versa? The piece does clarify that some studies have shown a statistically significant (p values not given) increase in total suicides following high-profile coverage though.

    While I agree that its abhorrrent that stories like this grace our newspapers, it is prehaps unfair to blame journalists too much – their job is to write “interesting” articles and sadly it appears that this is the sort of thing which pulls punters. I forget the details but there was one US newspaper which decided to only print “happy” news – it closed extremely rapidly. Journalists and Newspapers can hide behind the fact that, if they take a one-sided decision not to publish such stories on moral grounds, they will lose out to competitors – be that other newspapers or completely uncontrolled blogs.

    Maybe a panel at the coroners’ court should in fact make the decision whether it is in the public interest that a case should be reported or not. Judges are largely impartial – certainly high court judges and above cannot be removed by parliament without extremely good cause. This would avoid dragging families through additional unnecessary torment (while the idea of shaming bullying families may seem superficially attractive, if there isn’t enough evidence to bring them to justice via the formal system maybe we should protect them from unofficial punishments?) unless there was an overpowering reason why the reporting of a death would be in the public interest. This would not be the case in the vast majority of suicides. Anonymous data would still be available by genuine researchers wishing to study issues such as suicide.

  66. ehm said,

    March 29, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Ben
    I’m not trying to be funny, but shouldn’t you include “details of further sources for help and advice” in your article?

  67. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 29, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Maybe also relevant: much that is reported in the media is not necessarily true. A possible example from the “true story magazine” genre is a recent medical case that was claimed to be probably the first case of a child receiving organ transplants from both parents as living donors, liver (part of) and kidney; the magazine connection is that I read about another such case in a trashy magazine about a decade ago, but I think the patient got one kidney from each parent. Actually that’s when it first occurred to me that some of the horrible depressing stories, photos and all, were maybe not true after all. So what’s the ethical position on reporting of completely fictional cases?

  68. Monkeyman said,

    March 29, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    I have reported from coroners’ courts on many a suicide in my early career and I shudder to think about what pain my reports may have caused relatives. And I really don’t know what public good they served – to editors on local papers, they are crowd-pleasing space fillers.
    I was once told by an editor to report on a farmer’s suicide and to include as much detail as possible about the shotgun injuries. I thought this in bad taste so I went into unpleasant depth to shame the guy into toning it down – and the full story was the page one lead. I left not long afterwards. I was pretty junior at the time and these days I would handle the situation differently.
    My view is that the media (especially local) covers stories of premature or unnatural deaths under the pretext of “raising awareness” about a weird disease or “warning others” about some kind of misadventure. But those messages are not really allowed to come through. The story is inevitably about the family’s grief – which makes the coverage an exercise in prurience rather than anything else.
    It’s not practical or desirable to stop the media reporting on inquests, early deaths or suicides, but I agree there ought to be better training for young journalists and some clearer guidelines for editors.

  69. chatsubo said,

    March 30, 2009 at 7:45 am

    1st rule of journalism – if it bleeds, it leads

  70. cvb said,

    March 30, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Sorry sponias

    www.scientificdreaminterpretation.com

    You have got to be kidding.

  71. kerledan said,

    March 30, 2009 at 9:54 am

    “ehm said,

    March 29, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Ben
    I’m not trying to be funny, but shouldn’t you include “details of further sources for help and advice” in your article?”

    I agree with ehm: just a link to the Samaritans perhaps at www.samaritans.org

    There will be some people who come upon this post, search for it, using search terms I don’t want to write here, who are in a distressed state. And it’s a pretty disturbing post (although well-thought through and fair).

  72. cbuckley said,

    March 30, 2009 at 10:46 am

    It is worth noting that, even though the Telegraph’s own article on the PCC adjudication (listed above) says that the article was suspended from its Web site, it seems to have been reinstated.

  73. Wonko said,

    March 30, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Editors don’t do suicide. They are simply not interested. How else do you explain the public ignorance around something that kills more than 5,000 every year in the UK? (compared, for eg, to around 3,500 road deaths).

    What editors do is sensationalism. Suicide by chainsaw hits the headlines because it is unusual. Suicide by hanging or overdose doesn’t because it isn’t. Suicide by lots of young men in a single area (eg, Bridgend – even though it is little different to other areas of South Wales) is similarly sensational.

    A code of practice might help – but I would be more inclined to suggest a boycott (see, for eg, the Sun’s rapid u-turn following the now infamous “Bonkers Bruno” headline. If we could hit the papers where it hurts (in their circulation), then we might make a difference.

  74. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 30, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    Speaking again of not true: is anyone else finding the Cadbury Creme Egg adverts distasteful, where eggs commit suicide in various ways, the latest being seemingly a cult mass extermination? Some of the details are unrealistic, but the emotional sense of the scenes is usually of despair and alienation from one’s own existence. Oh, and then there was the one or two where the deceased egg was resurrected as a demonic zombie white and yellow fondant chocolate bar. Did that sell?

    And what about the little ones? They only have the life-size eggs in the adverts, as far as I remember, but if your cult -is- going to strip naked in the meeting hall and wait for the leader to initiate your collective destruction, which is what the eggs do, you don’t usually leave the children out of it.

    If you have been affected by the issues in this posting, you should see the state -I’m- in.

  75. Delster said,

    March 30, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    There is a point that i think a lot of people are missing here.

    In what possible way can somebody commiting suicide, no matter the method, be considered news?

    Surely the media should be there to present items of importance to the nation or at least to the demographic they cover?

    In what possible way does somebodies suicide affect me, the man on the street, unless i actually know the person…in which case would i want to read about it in a newspaper anyway?

    The only place i can see a story about a suicide being apt is in a psychiatric journal where it’s covered from the angle of what made the person do it rather than the gory details ie a case study.

    Given the media is seemingly trending towards more and more sensational stories maybe we should just bring back the roman circus with it’s gladitorial games?

    Maybe we could throw offending reporters to the lions…or would the be cruelty to animals?

  76. mikewhit said,

    March 31, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    You might think that publishing too much info might get caught under the existing laws about “assisting or encouraging suicide” – but then you might also think that those readily-identifiable bozos in the press a few months back, who were urging a would-be jumper to “go on then !” would get picked up under the legislation as well, but nothing happened to them, much to my annoyance.

    Better than drawing attention to unfortunate medical outcomes of those who attempted to kill themselves, as a warning, would it not be more constructive to highlight those who (like a poster above) say “I thought of trying it but I don’t feel that way any more and am glad to be alive – the urge passes and you can come through it”

  77. Wonko said,

    March 31, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Delster, you have a point. Although by that reasoning, the media should not report the individuals caught up in road accidents, disasters, terrorist bombings, etc, etc.

    The difficulty is that journalists/editors actively seek out “case studies” that match predetermined stereotypes. Remember that when you see interviews with people caught up in news events, they will have been edited – plane crash survivors who ask important questions about airline safety are edited out in favour of those who are visibly shocked or hysterical.

    I fear that as circulation falls, the media will go even further down this road, presenting us with sensationalist stories involving individual tragedies that shed no light on (indeed divert attention away from) the real underlying issues.

    I, for my part avoid buying newspapers and watching TV, I would urge you all to do likewise!

  78. mikewhit said,

    March 31, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Miniblog typo:
    “Has “nerd” lost it’s cool” -> “Has “nerd” lost its cool”

    … no apostrophe …

  79. DrJG said,

    March 31, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Much as I agree that this reporting was irresponsible, prurient, and against existing codes of conduct, I am more concerned by the governments attempts to allow some inquests to be held in private. Evil as this case may be, it is, in my view, far the lesser in comparison to that possibility.
    There is a (strong) need for responsible journalism in relation to coroners courts – but the important term is “responsible”.
    Ben and I, and the other medics here, have to be registered to be allowed to practice. Is there a case for similar registration for journalists? Maybe not for any reporting, but as a requirement for access to courts, parliament and other official proceedings?
    Of course, it would need a decent registering body, certainly better that the PCC, or, for that matter, the General Medical Council which appears to lack the confidence of either the public Or the medical profession. Perhaps this idea just swaps one set of problems for another set?

    I don’t know if anyone else has, but I have brought the continued existence of the apparently unedited story on the Telegraph website to the attention of the PCC.

  80. heavens said,

    March 31, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    I share Ben’s sentiments about pushing detailed accounts of suicides (or even car wrecks) into people’s faces.

    A headline or the first sentence of a news report on television or radio doesn’t usually tell you that it’s going to be followed by a step-by-step system for recreating it. You can’t always skip an article before it’s too late. Furthermore, that kind of technical information is not news, which is what I’m paying for.

    When you’re talking about suicides among people that are basically physically and mentally healthy, the message communicated through the suicide is extremely important, especially when considering the likelihood of copycats. “People” don’t use chainsaws to kill themselves: men who are losing their homes do. “People” don’t hang themselves in Bridgend: healthy young women who just had a argument with their boyfriends do. “People” don’t strangle themselves in Micronesia: well-liked sons aged 15-24 whose fathers scolded them for something minor do — and so on. When we report these incidents, a small number of foolish people will assume that this is the right way to respond to these situations.

    The model is called “social proof”, which says basically that if you don’t know how to behave, then copy the person next to you, and humans are clearly wired to work that way. So if a person gets low marks at school, and she swallows a dozen aspirin — or gets drunk, or screams at her parents, or cries for hours, or leaves school, or blames the teacher — then that must be the way people respond, and if this happens to you, then you should do the same thing.

  81. Jessicathejourno said,

    April 1, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Delster, the interest to the public comes when there has been doubt as to the perpetrator (examples – deaths in custody, deaths of dependents or minors, deaths in a confrontational civil atmosphere) or questions over a broader responsibility for a self-inflicted death (examples – neglect on the part of the social services or the NHS, inappropriate or dangerous harassment by creditors, business associates or acquaintances, extreme social marginalization based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation – etc.)

    You may not agree, and nor may many of the posters here . . . but thank god it’s not your decision. I agree Ben has come far too close to censorship on this one. The Bailey woman was revolting, though not remarkably revolting by the Telegraph’s standards, and broke her own code of conduct. And there’s a correlation between the reporting of suicide methods and the immediate popularity of suicide methods. Horrible. Unprofessional. Crappy. Dangerous. Yet another reason I only read the Telegraph for WI frugality tips.

    But these things aren’t a good argument for what many of you seem to want, the legal mandating and regulation of good taste, because there’s NO good argument for legally mandating and regulating good taste. Someone will have to legally mandate and regulate what good taste is, you see. And when it’s about something as sensitive as death and who’s responsible for it, the potential for abuse is staggering. Obviously. Right? No? Not obviously? Sigh. Bad Science has never made me so proud to be a journalist and a humanities graduate.

  82. mikewhit said,

    April 1, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    By analogy with the TV “watershed”, where potentially damaging material is placed out of the immediate reach of those it might affect, by all means publish the _basic_ story on the front page if it warrants it, but require the placement of any gory sensationalism/detail, that the newspaper owners think necessary, in some backwater of the paper.

  83. CaptainSensible said,

    April 5, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Is it possible that just knowing that another person has killed themselves might prompt another borderline suicidal individual into doing the same (one of my brother’s friends from several years ago killed himself recently)?

    Does the level of detail actually make any difference?

    If true, it would be a communal reinforcement of belief where the community of (suicidal) people never actually meet. It might only require one person to do what someone else is thinking about doing to nudge them into ‘what I’m thinking about doing is actually OK; therefore, I am going to do it’

  84. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 5, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I don’t want to propose an identification, but I’d speculate that the more you know about a case where someone committed suicide, particularly someone close to you or close to someone who is close to you, the more easy it is to imagine doing the same thing. However, that could prompt you to think about the idea and reject it.

    Depression is a peculiar thing, though. I’ve had it, but you don’t always know that you’ve got it. It tends to be actually a more realistic worldview, I’ve read; a healthy state of mind is one of unreasonable optimism. So it’s hard to tell that something’s wrong with you, whereas if you are holding conversations with the furniture you can objectively understand that something is wrong with this.

  85. drgoodhead said,

    April 18, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    The media kills people?!! If only it were so glamorous Ben. A disgraceful lack of adequate health provision and support for those with debilitating mental health problems is what kills people. Families are largely left to cope on their own with their poorly loved ones and then the inevitable happens. Too sad for words.

  86. Charlie-D said,

    April 22, 2009 at 9:47 am

    You report that mental illnesses are sometimes the cause of suicides—then you say that suicidal thoughts will pass—what confuses me is that how any kind “science” can look at the persons “REAL-LIFE” Situations and from there, determine that the person is “mentally ill,” and then when the Real-Life situations do not pass, and neither do the “suicidal thoughts,” how then, can it be determined that a “mental illness” had in any way been involved, especially when it had been the REAL-LIFE Situation that had caused the “suicidal thoughts” in the first place—or is it the “Situation” or “Circumstance” itself that should be considered to be the “Disease”???

  87. Jane V said,

    April 23, 2009 at 4:32 am

    The awful truth – and yet some sensible calm: tragedy and sadness there is plenty of – yet, whilst biting tongue, so many people, individuated by whatever means , are released by their suicides from terrible horrors – to both personal and family relief. I speak from familial and professional experience. How to let go? How to positively act in a negative way? Many are helped greatly by early exit. There can never be enough support, but God help our souls, let them/us find a safe, CIVILISED and secure way to let go. To act to die. God bless you, the self-fallen.

  88. dannew said,

    May 8, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Hi Ben,

    I’m a bit confused by this. I thought you were all for the media disclosing factually accurate information?

    But here, you seem to be saying that you don’t want people to know the full truth.

    I know that in this case the report was not very nice. But life and death often isn’t.

    Maybe, rather than being free to print this kind of thing, you’d prefer to have a panel of experts empowered to determine what the media reports?

    This panel would be a bit like a ‘taste censor’.
    Only articles that are sufficiently ‘tasteful’ could be printed.

    Perhaps we could co-opt a couple of politicans onto the board? Maybe some few high-minded doctors? A self-important science columnist? And what about a Formula One boss with a taste for bondage?

    Because the people of Britain are too stupid or prurient to know what’s good for them, this panel could prevent anything they don’t like the smell of from being published.

    As a result the newspapers would be cleansed of articles which, though factually accurate, are insufficiently ‘tasteful’ or ‘useful’

    They would also become politically compliant and dull as ditchwater.

    What your former girlfriend’s partner did to himself is a tragedy.

    However, he did it and we should be able to discuss the fact that he did.

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