One of the more distressing aspects of Robin Williams' tragic death through suicide has been the willingness of some newspapers to dwell in some detail on how it was done – despite the well known evidence that inappropriate coverage in the media may have a significant influence on the behaviour of others.
As a lecturer in media ethics this worries me. And it’s not a new phenomenon. As far back as 1841, one of the founders of medical statistics William Farr considered that “no fact is better established in science than that suicide… is often committed from imitation…. Do the advantages of publicity counterbalance the evils attendant on one such death? Why should cases of suicide be recorded at length in the papers any more than cases of fever?”
Robin Williams' death was a tragedy that saddened millions including myself. The fact that he committed suicide adds poignancy to the loss suffered by his family and his viewers and fans. The flagging up by the media of his perceived problems including depression, past addictions and present money issues could conceivably be helpful if they led to a discussion of how such issues – common to a much wider community than only the rich and famous – might be overcome. This would be reporting news, but with a social purpose also in mind, and newspapers exercising some social responsibility.
However, the details of how he carried out his suicide reported in a lurid manner – sometimes in bulletpoint headlines – by papers such as the Sun, the Mirror, and the Mail are of no positive benefit to anyone. They also run the risk of bringing about copycat actions by individuals who perhaps may feel seriously depressed or have mental health issues. At worst this might bring them to act in a similar way in the belief that this could bring about a personal association with their former on-screen hero.
The disappointing fact is that there do exist very clear guidelines produced by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), and even by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) which outline acceptable ways of covering suicide in the press. According to the NUJ: “Reporting suicide carries a responsibility for writers and editors in regard to the most vulnerable and exposed members of society. It is essential to understand the serious implications that the language we use can have on those affected." The PCC says: “When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used." The PCC even goes on to state that exceptions should be made only if it can be shown that matters of overriding ‘public interest’ are at stake.
There is a clear difference however between the ‘public interest’, and the ‘interest of the public’ and I fear that these papers have ignored the guidelines in order to sell more copies as they believe this is pandering to an interest in society.
Less than 10 years ago, the National institute for Mental Health in England undertook a representative survey of journalists and editors at national newspapers, the BBC, commercial TV and radio and a series of magazines. Of the respondents to the survey, 94 per cent admitted to having no detailed knowledge of existing guidelines. One commented: “Most newspapers probably haven’t thought about this. I wonder how closely they’d be read by the average journalists.”
From my knowledge of the industry, I believe the problem cannot be placed solely at the door of the individual journalist, but rather it is due to the increasing work pressure piled upon journalists by their employers’ insistence that it is circulation, rather than consequence, that counts. Most journalists do not receive adequate training from their employers on this or other ethical questions. Many editors are also clearly failing to adopt existing guidelines although these are not new issues, and guidance has existed for many years.
Newspapers need to do better.
Dr Douglas Chalmers is senior lecturer in media and journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University, where he teaches a course on media ethics.