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When less is more

Given the explosion of reporting about suicides over the past three weeks, it was only a matter of time before readers began criticising the media’s coverage.

mumbai Updated: Jan 17, 2010 01:24 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Given the explosion of reporting about suicides over the past three weeks, it was only a matter of time before readers began criticising the media’s coverage.

Most of their ire is directed at the electronic media, but some readers feel that newspapers, including the Hindustan Times have also not been sensitive enough. Below is a summary of the various criticisms, the response to each by HT’s Mumbai editor, Soumya Bhattacharya, followed by my thoughts.

Criticism 1: Newspapers needlessly carry reports of suicides on their front pages.

Response: It depends on how one defines “need.” One could argue that drawing attention to these incidents makes parents more wary and aware, and helps them be more alert to how their children are behaving, and why.

Criticism 2: Many reports describe the manner in which the person committed suicide, but should not do so.

Response: Most of the “methods” we have reported are fairly well-known. I don’t think someone would need to read our report to find out. Unless the manner were bizarre or unusual, I do not think there is a problem in mentioning how the suicide was carried out.

Criticism 3: Some reports name the concerned person, even when he or she is a juvenile.

Response: We should not name juveniles or reveal details that might identify them.

Criticism 4: The reports oversimplify the reasons for the suicide.

Response: I understand that the suicide is a result of several factors, but a spot report may not be able to explore all these factors. Yet we do need to say why it happened, so I don’t see how we can do away with using a form of short-hand, at least in the first report.

Criticism 5: They are not exploring the larger issues enough.

Response: It has always been our endeavour to follow up the spot reports with complex big-picture stories. We put the reader at the forefront of our efforts.

Let me stick to criticisms 1, 2 and 4, since I have a slightly different view on those.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that there is considerable evidence to show that “vulnerable individuals may be influenced to engage in imitative behaviours by reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensationalist and/or explicitly describes the method of suicide.”

Moreover, according to the WHO, there are about one million suicides in the world every year. Surely, newspapers need to lay down some guidelines on which ones warrant writing about and, of these, which ones deserve to go on the front page.

First, I think a suicide should make it to the front page only if the reporter has been able to get enough details that allow him or her to place it in a larger context or show that it is part of a new pattern.

In an article on journalismethics.ca, Stephen J. A. Ward, a professor of journalism ethics at the U.S.’s University of Wisconsin-Madison, mentions two examples that I think might warrant front-page treatment: a public official in trouble committing suicide or a distraught military hero taking his life.

There needs to be much more debate over every suicide story that is being considered for the front page.

Second, while it is true that most people have a fair idea of the methods, a report of a real suicide gives the method a sort of ringing endorsement. As the WHO points out, such reports do lead to imitative behaviour.

In an article on the Poynter Institute’s website, journalist Cindy Deutchman-Ruiz argues that instead of focusing on the method and the suicide, “it might be more instructive and helpful to discuss the effects of the attempt — the physical ramifications, regrets, and how that person's life has proceeded after his or her survival.”

Finally, I think journalists ought to be very careful about using short-hand explanations, even in spot reports. To say that x or y took his or her life because of a love affair gone sour or poor marks is likely to be so simplistic as to be wrong. “Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event,” says the WHO. “Mental illness is a strong predictor of suicide.”

To be fair, some reports do mention long-term psychological reasons. But very few highlight the social factors.

Way back in 1897, based on extensive empirical research, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim argued in his landmark book Suicide that, besides an innate psychological disposition and climactic factors, suicide was also the result of either too little or too much social integration, leading respectively to what he called “egotistical” and “altruistic” suicide, or it results when society is unable to adequately perform its function of regulating behaviour, leading to what he called “anomic” suicide.

This is a highly simplified explanation of Durkheim’s complex work. Moreover, there are many critiques of it. But the point I am trying to make is that the social factors are often ignored.