Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Media Blackout

The other day I heard a traffic reporter on the radio. She said, “Traffic on the bridge is stopped in both directions as police deal with an incident. I’m not allowed to say what the incident is, but you can all guess.”

It is taboo in the media to talk about death from mental illness. This is prompted by some research that shows a spike in deaths in the aftermath of prominent reporting of celebrities that have taken their own lives. Nobody wants blood on their hands, so police, psychiatrists and the fifth estate all choose to remain silent.

Unless, of course, it’s a celebrity.
I find it ironic that the media will talk in great detail about murders, assaults, arsons, and other violent acts. Surely these sometimes provoke copycat crimes? Especially when methods are described in extreme detail? Mass killers like Timothy McVey, the Unabomber and the Beltway Sniper all talk about what inspired them from the media. Why is there no feeling of culpability there?

Probably because a group of medical authorities has not issued guidelines on reporting that leave media outlets feeling vulnerable to lawsuits, like associations in the United States and Canada.

Here is what the Canadian Psychiatric Association has published for the benefit of the Canadian media:
The media is to avoid:
-        Details of the method
-        The word “suicide” in the headline
-        Photos of the deceased
-        Admiration of the deceased
-        The idea that suicide is unexplainable
-        Repetitive or excessive coverage
-        Front page coverage
-        Exciting reporting
-        Romanticized reasons for the suicide
-        Simplistic reasons for the suicide
-        Approval of the suicide

The media should convey:
-        Alternatives to suicide (i.e. treatment)
-        Community resource information for those with suicidal ideation
-        Examples of a positive outcome of a suicidal crisis (i.e. calling a suicide hotline)
-        Warning signs of suicidal behaviour
-        How to approach a suicidal person

Okay…here is where I start to have problems.

First off, what the media “should convey” reads both as a brochure for the Canadian Psychiatric Association (a noble thing, but not a news story); and second, it reads as a condemnation of the deceased (i.e. “these are the choices they and their loved ones should have made”).

I have problems, too, with some of the things “to avoid.”

“Admiration of the deceased.” Most people who have died from mental illness have done so after a long and difficult struggle. They should be admired like cancer patients.

What does “simplistic reasons for the suicide” mean? If a newspaper says, “They died from a mental illness” is that too simplistic?

If the death caused a major newsworthy event, or was part of such an event, why not place it on the front page? (They do when it’s a celebrity).

Here is what I would have liked to have heard from that traffic reporter:

“Traffic is stopped in both directions on the bridge as emergency crews are trying to save a man’s life. It appears he may have a mental illness – which can result in death if not treated properly. Please be patient while the authorities try to avert a tragedy. Unfortunately, incidents like this are all too common – learn how to detect mental illness in its earliest stages, before it becomes deadly – visit our website for more information.”

This taboo must be broken, so that people can learn how common these tragedies are.

For a fantastic article on this, please go here.





No comments: