MEDIA play a critical role in society and without them, the world would suffer from information deficiency. The four functions of media are to inform, persuade, transmit culture, and entertain. It requires only responsible media to have that hazard perception skill or that fifth sense that tells them beforehand the implications their message could have on individuals and society and large.
By Michael Gwarisa
In the wrong hands, media can be dangerous and lethal, hence the old adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Media reportage of mental health issues has over the years been increasing across the globe including Zimbabwe, albeit as a reaction to certain developments that would have transpired for example, suicide or when a mentally challenges person goes on a killing spree.
Issues of suicide have been on the increase of late and according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), globally 700 000 people die due to suicide annually and of every suicide, there are many more people who attempt suicide. Journalists play a crucial role reporting suicides every year. Some suicide deaths may be newsworthy. However, the way media cover suicide can influence behavior negatively by contributing to contagion, or positively by encouraging help-seeking. Other news items, if not crafted and packaged in a responsible manner could be suicide triggers.
Global health authorities have published guidelines for news media reporting on suicide; however, uptake of recommendations remains limited. In resource limited countries such as Zimbabwe, these guidelines are yet to be adopted and there has not been much training on suicide reporting. Media and online coverage of suicide should be informed by using best practices.
Suicide contagion is what every media outlet should strive not to promote. Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide and this can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Over 100 studies worldwide have found that risk of contagion is real and responsible reporting can reduce the risk of additional suicides.
Media may influence or may drive suicide contagion through giving blow by blow accounts of how one might have taken his/her own life. They do this by depicting the method and location of the suicide. In 2019 when an Upper Room Ministries Pastor jumped to his death from the second floor of his Church in Harare, various media outlets ran the story and it gained traction. However, a week later, a Prince Edward Boys High School pupil went to the same spot at Rezende Parking bay just a few yards from the Upper Room Church and jumped to his death. Instead of giving details about a suicide, rather just report the death as a suicide and keep information about the location and suicide method as general as possible.
Many a times especially during these social media times, there is no regard for ethics or need to follow any special reporting guidelines when it comes to suicide. One mistake tabloid news outlets and social media citizen Journalists make when reporting about suicide is through sharing the content of suicide notes. A few weeks ago, South Africa’s high flying rapper, Ricky-Rick died and before he took his own life, he penned an emotional missive to his wife and kids. The letter was shared via South African twitter and all other social media platforms. Some online publications shared the letter as it is. In as much as this bring out the emotion around the entire death, it may act as a trigger in those who might be having suicide thoughts. Instead of sharing the contents of suicide notes, rather just indicate that a note was found.
Describing personal detail of a suicide may have a ripple effect and to some extent encourage others who would have been harboring suicide thoughts for a while to proceed with the deed. For example digging deep into the person’s life for the purposes of publicizing his personal life and experiences might act as a justification to take one’s life in some. For example saying so and so was a pastor from such and such as a church and he was having marital problems etc. A person from such a background who could be facing the same predicament in life might find suicide as the escape route. Rather keep personal information about the person as general as you can.
Though unsuspectingly, media at times glamourizes suicide and makes it appear romantic. Movie and films makers are the biggest culprits here. African or Nigerian movies to be precise. They tend to provide suicide as an escape route and as a way of fixing those who wrong others in life. For example, they may present a young beautiful girl with a promising future who experiences suffers a heartbreak from the love of her life. She later takes her own life as an escape route and then later returns as a ghost to haunt her lover. This can trigger suicides in those experiencing such problems.
Placement of a new article in the newspaper can have an effect. Placing a suicide story as a lead article on the front page may have a triggering effect. Instead of giving prominence to suicide stories, rather find somewhere inside the paper or magazine where to place it. Giving statistics may also trigger suicides? In as much as there is need to know how prevalent suicide is, giving alarming statistics maybe result in people justifying suicide saying at least if I die I am not the only one who would have gone this way.
Sensationalizing facts may trigger suicides and in the same vein affect the grieving family. Report on the death using facts and language that are sensitive to a grieving family. Another mistake Journalists make is that of presenting suicide as a common or acceptable response to hardship. Report that coping skills, support, and treatment work for most people who have thoughts about suicide. Don’t oversimplify or speculate on the reason for the suicide. Rather describe suicide warning signs and risk factors (e.g. mental illness, relationship problems) that give suicide context.
Always avoid overstating the problem of suicide by using descriptors like “epidemic” or “skyrocketing.” Research the best available data and use words like “increase” or “rise.” There are so many ways in which Media and Journalists influence or indirectly promote suicide. However, this can be addressed and reversed.
Rather than reporting suicide as news items, Journalists and the media could play an advocacy role and report suicide as a public health issue. Including stories on hope, healing, and recovery may reduce the risk of contagion. Include Resources. Provide information on warning signs of suicide risk as well as hotline and treatment resources. At a minimum, include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Text Line (listed below) or local crisis phone numbers.
There is need to use appropriate language. Certain phrases and words can further stigmatize suicide, spread myths, and undermine suicide prevention objectives such as “committed suicide” or referring to suicide as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or a “failed attempt.” Instead use, “died by suicide” or “killed him/herself.” Also emphasize Help and Hope. Stories of recovery through help-seeking and positive coping skills are powerful, especially when they come from people who have experienced suicide risk. Ask an Expert. Interview suicide prevention or mental health experts to validate your facts on suicide risk and mental illness.