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.
Saturday 28 March 2009
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.