Thursday, 11 September 2008

My rant over "self-inflicted death"

This morning saw me and my fellow baby journalists attend the SPINZ seminar on the media's role in suicide prevention. Tuckr has a fine post on suicide reporting (he should, it's the speech he gave at the Auckland conference), so I'm going to take it as a given that you know we can't really report suicides very well - no details, be sensitive, don't glamourise it, don't rationalise it, oh heck, my guidelines are on the other side of the bed, so I guess I'll have to wing it.

The forum was useful - some interesting research was raised and I made sure to grab a copy of what the Ministry of Health's trying to do to stop suicide. Unfortunately, in a free and frank forum about a subject that's taboo, everything was sanitised. Prime example: self-inflicted death. Not suicide. Not killing yourself. Not topping yourself. But self-inflicted death. No details. A violent death rather than slashed wrists. A body found in an area; not jumped to his/her death. I don't know how this encourages open discussion about a difficult topic, especially a topic that people are so scared to talk about, let alone report on.

The one word that kept coming to mind as I scribbled down my notes was propaganda. We were constantly told that the MoH didn't want to censor journos; merely ensure they reported correctly and safely. I actually agree with the concept that suicide is nobody else's business, and I'm not overly fussed about the restrictions on reporting, but I do object to the national strategy for suicide prevention having a specific goal dedicated to sanitising media coverage. I don't think it's good for strong reporting of the issues, and I don't think it will lead to anything other than wider censorship.

This wasn't helped by the fact that although the research dismissed a causal link between fictional suicide representations and actual suicide, it was implied that this was an element (I mean the whole basis of the research came from the impact a novel had in encouraging suicide). What's the next activity that requires guidelines?

The way people were speaking, it seemed as though every time suicide was metioned, there was a spate of copycat episodes. I don't mean to make light of the situation, but I couldn't get the final scene of Hedda Gabbler out of my head, and I envisioned an audience getting up after her death, walking out of the theatre and shooting themselves.

I did have a fair amount of time for Paul Thompson (Fairfax's Group Editor) when he wasn't plugging the typical media line "we do our job and we do it well". And he made a fine point in asking for more openness in reporting on suspected suicides. I can't fault his logic; if it's suspected, the hidden code "There were no suspicious circumstances" doesn't quite explain that (and while it pains me to admit my own naivety, I didn't pick up on the code until Jim pointed it out to us earlier this year -sheesh).

I think he was wrong when he claimed we can only write features on suicide every couple of months as there's no appetite for them. I think there's enormous public appetite for stories about suicide and I think people want to be able to speak about it openly. By leaving suicide stories under-reported or left as a token feature every few months, we continue to marginalise it, making it difficult to cover stories about suicide that may actually help reduce suicide rates (causes of suicide, general trends, ways to approach suicidal people). The more education people have about a topic, the greater their capacity for discussing and debating it intelligently. (I'm just trying to balance out my cycnicism with some idealism here.)

Having read back through this post, I can't find any real unifying theme, and I suppose that's because I just needed to vent after the seminar (which seems normal considering the content of the day). I guess I'm just disappointed: I expected some real discussion on what the media can do to make things better, not listen to what the media needs to do to minimise harm.

Whew. Now I've got that out of the system, the critical thought can begin...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent comments. I too am overwhelmed by the overly-sensitive approach to suicide. If we can't talk openly about it, how can we aid in the understanding of it.