News headlines create risk for youth, experts say
A UBC psychologist is worried that the high-profile media coverage of the Amanda Todd story may lead other teens to kill themselves.
E. David Klonsky says he’s concerned about the repetitive front-page stories and publication of the late Port Coquitlam teen’s photo, which fly in the face of guidelines on reporting suicide as well as established evidence that links prominent media attention to contagion, or copycat, suicides.
Speaking from Ontario by phone on the sidelines of a conference of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, the associate psychology professor described the Todd coverage as “potentially excessive”.
“If you create sort of a vision of suicide, [it] leads to a lot of positive attention. Suicide leads to your picture on the front page or your picture in the yearbook and leads to a lot of reactions and interest from all the friends and community and family members who didn’t give you what you were looking for while you were alive. If suicide gets paired with any of these kinds of positive outcomes in the media, that could encourage more teens to attempt suicide,” Klonsky told the Georgia Straight. “And that’s what we want to avoid.”
But he also said he recognized that news reports have not provided details about the suicide act and a sense that taking one’s own life is approved of, which conform to guidelines on suicide coverage. He admitted that it’s difficult for him to say whether or not he would have preferred low-profile coverage of the Todd story because it’s an “important topic”.
“I don’t know that coverage itself needed to be less, but, certainly, the sensationalism of the front-page headlines and posting the deceased’s picture everywhere, that certainly could have been less,” Klonsky said.
Suicide-prevention expert Jennifer White pointed out that the circumstances around the Todd coverage demonstrate the complex times in which mainstream-media outlets find themselves. It’s a situation where social media have become ubiquitous channels for public information.
“There’s a recognition that because she was so public already online in terms of her YouTube video, that that already put it into the public domain,” White, an associate professor in the University of Victoria’s school of child and youth care, told the Straight in a phone interview. “So I think it’s hard to say, well, that that isn’t newsworthy. I can see for the news media how they could construe that as, you know, in the public interest because it was already in the public zone.”
Asked if mainstream media should have exercised more restraint, White gave a nuanced reply.
“It’s hard to answer that because I don’t know the conversations that led them to decide how they did frame it,” White said. “Maybe the fact that they didn’t talk about the method, and maybe the fact that they didn’t use suicide in the headline, is their own attempt to be restrained. I’m not sure. So that’s hard for me to say. But I think the one thing we do know is this kind of glorification—with lots of photos and kind of a romanticizing of the person who has died by suicide—is problematic in the way that it could invite other young people to identify. And so that’s always a concern.
“And at the same time, I see the tension,” White continued, “because I see also her parents saying, ‘We want her YouTube video to be circulated because we think this is the best way to honour her memory.’ So media are in a very, I think, difficult position in terms of balancing the interests of the public’s right to know, the parents’ wishes, and the scientific evidence about contagion. I mean these are all the things that need to be balanced.”
Elizabeth Saewyc is the lead investigator at UBC’s Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Consortium. She said she is unsure whether mainstream-media coverage of the Todd story will cause a contagion effect, because young people are less plugged into it and are more connected through social media. She also suggested that social media may have the opposite effect of discouraging youth from committing suicide.
“I don’t know that the regular media are on Twitter feeds or the Facebook pages of young people today,” Saewyc, who is also a professor of nursing and adolescent medicine, told the Straight by phone.
The Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. provides several suggestions about what media should “avoid” in reporting suicides. These include running stories on the front page or using them as lead items in news broadcasts. Media should also refrain from “repetitive, ongoing, or excessive reporting of suicide” in the news. The Vancouver Sun covered the Todd suicide on the front page above the fold for four consecutive days.
Crisis centre spokesperson Stephanie Cardwell maintained that the Todd story was “not in any way sensationalized by the media because the facts were presented”. “A big focus of the story was on bullying, and we find there are opinions on how bullying has led to Amanda’s suicide, and there were many perspectives on what the community can do to stop bullying,” Cardwell told the Straight by phone.
Reminded about her group’s recommendations against prominent media reporting, Cardwell said: “I think it was important to provide this high-profile story and to open a conversation and shed a light on bullying.”
But providing what appear to be easy answers to questions about why a person committed suicide is another danger that UBC’s Klonsky is worried about. “Everyone’s attributing the suicide to the bullying, which I’m sure was a very important cause, but it’s probably not quite that simple,” he said.
If you need help, the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C. has phone lines that are open 24 hours a day.