Glorifying suicide

Do you know who Kristin and Candice Hermeler are? What if I said “suicide twins”?

You may have seen a few stories around today screeching that the “suicide twins” had a copy of The God Delusion in their suitcase. (Fact: The God Delusion is a best-seller. Millions of people own a copy. I bought one for ManFriend a while back.) The stories also list the cds and books they had in their suitcases. Just because the public may be interested in what cds the women own, it is not in the public’s interest to report this information. It’s suicide porn.

The guidelines around the reporting of suicide are pretty clear:

Use the term ‘suicide’ sparingly and check the language you use does not glamorise, sensationalise, or present suicide as a solution to problems – eg consider using ‘non-fatal’ not ‘unsuccessful’; or ‘cluster of deaths’ rather than ‘suicide epidemic’. The term ‘committed suicide’ is outdated, use ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took his/her own life’ instead.

So, headlines calling them “suicide twins” are out, but you see them all the time. Many stories suggest that they did it because they were odd and had a bad relationship with their mother. And now it’s implied that because they had a few self-help books with them, they must have been unhappy. How the fuck would a journalist know? Look at the books I’m reading at the moment: Living Dolls – the return of sexism, and Free for All – the internet’s transformation of journalism. Gee, that could mean that I’m deeply unhappy about the internet’s threat to my job security and that I’m a prude who doesn’t like all the soft porn images all around us. Think I’m being facetious? What if I changed the word ‘prude’ to ‘someone who felt deeply uncomfortable about sex and felt she didn’t fit in with popular culture’. Now it sounds like something you’d read in a newspaper, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. I don’t feel those things. And this is the problem with suggesting that items you happen to have with you at a particular point in time are significant. Sure, they may be significant, but the journalist is just guessing. It reminds me of that scene in Heathers where Veronica and JD randomly underline sentences in Moby Dick and the priest reads them out at Heather Duke’s funeral, giving them the weight of a person in distress. A friend may have loved The God Delusion and given the sisters a copy. I gave my friend a copy of Wetlands but it doesn’t mean I like to stick avocado seeds up my vagina. Or showerheads up my arse.

Back to the guidelines:

Don’t be explicit about method
Most members of the media follow a code – written or unwritten – that the method and location of suicide is not described, displayed or photographed. If it is important to the story, discuss the method and location in general terms only – eg consider using ‘cocktail of drugs’ rather than a description of the medications taken. Detailed description can prompt some vulnerable people to copy the act.

Yet today I saw a video of the sisters walking to the shooting range, and footage of them at the shooting range. The video was described as “chilling”, yet it wasn’t. It was bland. Unremarkable. Weather looked cold though, so maybe that’s what the journo meant.

Positioning the story
Some evidence suggests a link between prominent placement of suicide stories and copycat suicide. Position the story on the inside pages of a paper or magazines, or further down in the order of reports in TV and radio news.

In 2006, 1799 people took their lives. In 2008, 2191 people took their lives. I’m not suggesting that media coverage has encouraged that increase. But I am questioning why this story has been given such continued prominence by the Australian media. What makes it so newsworthy to cover this story about two people who aren’t famous doing something that, sadly, thousands of Australians do each year? Is it because they used guns? Is it because twins are considered weird or freaky and so anything they do is newsworthy? Or is it because we have video footage of them at the shooting range? Because none of these reasons can justify the ghoulish way this story has been covered.

Then there’s the throwaway line at the bottom, “If you or someone you know has mental health issues”, followed by the numbers for Lifeline and beyondblue. As though all the glorifying of suicide that has gone on in the story is ok because you included the phone number for Lifeline at the very end. The guidelines do suggest these numbers should be included, but after breathlessly reporting that ohmygodtheyhadabookaboutreligionandtheydidn’tliketheirmother, it means shit.

A little while ago, I had a drunken argument with my then-news editor. I said we had a responsibility to report accurately, particularly when writing about people. She said that may be true in “la la fantasy Kim land” but in the real world we don’t have that responsibility at all. I think that’s appalling. To be fair, I don’t know if she holds that view while sober, but even if she does, it’s not one shared by the majority of Australian journalists. Sure, some are arsehats and dickheads, but many are not. Many are good, intelligent people working their arses off doing the job of two or three people while being constantly told that their industry is doomed.

I think we’ve ended up here because too many costs have been cut. News Ltd and Fairfax share stories across their newsrooms (but not with each other, of course), and the journalist repackaging a story for one website/newspaper doesn’t know the journalist who wrote it, let alone the person it’s about. If you didn’t interview the person in the story, and so don’t have a connection to them, it’s easy to see it in a more abstract way – ‘what’s the juicy bit for the headline? Hey, we’ve got video of them moments before it happened, oh that’s awesome!’ I’m not saying that every newsroom should use their own resources to cover every story, because that is just redundant. But what I am saying is that we, as journalists, have become too removed from our audience. And part of our audience is the people in the news.

Look at everyone who tweets with the hashtags #qt, #auspol and #qanda. And all the people who have blogs and leave comments on blogs about news events. And the millions of Australians who visit news websites every day. People are interested in the news. Every story doesn’t have to be sensational and gasping with exclamation marks and drooling over what someone had in their suitcase when they died. Journalism should be better than this. If we want people to pay for it, it has to be.

22 responses to “Glorifying suicide

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention New post: when news reporting becomes suicide porn --

  2. Amen.

    The truth is most of us don’t give a frig about the sensationalistic news anyway.
    We talk about those articles because we get mad about them, because it’s taking up valuable print space (pixel space) for news that counts.

    Not that suicide or the people who have taken their lives don’t count. Just that, this public post-mortem of the twins lives has descended into crass morbidity. There is no reason for us (the public) to be privy to these ins and outs of these whys and hows. It’s also insensitive to the family left behind trying to deal with it.

    • Exactly. I didn’t link to the story because I didn’t want to add to the number of clicks it got. Which is the problem with making news decisions based on clicks – you don’t know if people are clicking on the story to ridicule it, or say it’s invasive, or to laugh at the typos. You think they love it and so you give them more.

  3. I would suggest that the prevention of any mention of suicide in the Australian media (for occurrences in Australia) is adding to the increase in numbers as it gives the impression that we don’t care about the people that go. I know of a number and the lack of any recognition of their loss is so very different to the loss of people killed by cars. It indicates that one group of people is far more important and that the others are of no importance. How can we impress on people considering suicide how much they mean to us if we cannot show the devastation that suicide creates?

    • Jayne, that’s a really good point. But – and I could be completely wrong with this – my understanding is that most people who take their lives feel that they are doing their friends and family a favour. That they cause so much grief for the people who love them that it’s better that they’re not there. Again, I could be wrong here and I’m happy to be corrected, so please, any experts, join in and stop me making a fool of myself.

      • You describe how I felt when I attempted suicide: I thought it would be better for my family to bury me and get a new daughter. That’s how weird my thinking got – I seriously though they could just replace me and carry on. Also, I agree about not reporting methods of suicide. One reason I am still here is that I didn’t know how to do it. People are suprisingly hard to kill.

        • Hi Magpie, welcome to the News with Nipples. That is a really sad story, but thank you for sharing it with us.

          How do you think that we – as a nation – can reduce the number of people who want to end their lives? Does it need to be a Government response, or something that happens at a grassroots level, something that makes us change the way we think about mental health?

          • Thank you for the welcome. I’ve been lurking for a while, but not very good at expressing myself. It’s hard to say what would help most over a whole nation. Personally, the two things that helped me most were getting a diagnosis and treatment for mental illness, and feminism. this is kind of the other side of the coin from the cyber bullying that Crazy One commented on. My attempts were pre-internet, but looking at things like your blog, for instance, can help someone see the big picture. You can see the pressures of society, and see that it’s not just you – a view you might not get in your everyday life.

            • Magpie, I don’t think you have problems expressing yourself. Your first comment gave me goosebumps.

              I think the best thing about the internet is that it allows people to connect with others who are outside their geographic area. And I imagine that the opportunities for cyber bullying are outweighed by the opportunities for people to connect with like-minded people.

    • I think the bigger picture here is not that one group of deaths is more important, but that the people killed on our roads (and their families) are not subjected to the same kind of intrusive public post-mortem that suicide victims and their families are.

      You don’t see reports of people rifling through the boots of the deceased or an analysis of the contents on their bookshelves when some one dies in a car crash. But you do see that kind of reporting for suicides.

      It’s not about repressing news on suicides, it’s about reporting on them responsibly.

      • Yes, that’s exactly my point. The media intrusion cannot be justified.

      • To me it’s subtle judgement by the press. The car crash case are blameless victims, it’s not recorded or perceived as their fault. Hence less intrusion. of course its not their fault, unless it was drink, speed, hoons etc. . . (Making it no less tragic of course) but with suicide cases the press analyses more because of a perceived selfishness, cowardice, weirdness  in their actions. It’s judgmental writing and a lusty macabre interest in suicide that creates this dichotomy. Just cos you die by your own hand rather than by an others it is no less tragic and you are no less a victim, in my opinion at least. 

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  5. Sadly I know just how suicide hurts the people left behind to clean up and try to get on and there are times when I have absolutely no sympathy for those who try (or succeed) to top themselves and I sort of think that the free pass given by the to those who kill themselves (by characterising them as “victims”) is naive at best and is in self an encouragement at worst. so perhaps there is something to be said for characterising suicide as the act of cowardice that it so often is.

    • Iain, I don’t think suicide is an act of cowardice. I can’t imagine how much pain a person must be in to get to the point where they make that decision. One of the things I remember from my psych degree is that for some people who make that decision, it’s not that they want to die (and therefore cause pain to those who love them) – they just want to sleep forever so they don’t have to deal with the pain they are in. I think it’s unfair to judge someone who makes decisions under that amount of mental anguish. Maybe as a society we’re getting better about talking about mental illness, but I don’t think we’re any better about accepting it. I can’t imagine anyone in my workplace telling colleagues they had depression. And until we do become much better at accepting it, people will keep hiding it. And if someone is hiding it, how can you help them?

      Having said all that, it doesn’t make it any easier for those who are left behind, and I hope the sadness you feel about your friend doesn’t stop you remembering why you liked them in the first place.

  6. Just a quick note, Social Networks have many people jumping into action against people without knowing the truth about a story or comment. It seems to be the thing to do, as in just recently with Chris Mitchell, people are going off about him but don’t know the story, they just jump on the wagon and abuse his actions and make smart comments about him. Slander, lies, inuendo, etc. is one of the biggest reasons for teen mental health problems, drug abuse and self harm. In Chris Mitchell’s case, the story that has hit print in retaliation and the comments from the ABC, and so forth, give no evidence to support the claims, and yet J.P. has refused to comment until she has legal advice. The point is everyone has attacked Mr Mitchell, as J.P. supporters have started a defamatory campaign against him without knowing the truth, I doubt at this point in time anyone does, however this attack by one and all via twitter is just an example of what does happen, people just join in on what they think is a bit of fun, they can’t be serious, if they were they would investigate before passing comment. I don’t care who it is or how old they are cyber bullying has to stop, the media has strict controls and it’s a shame that due to a few random idiots that we have to seriously look at controlling the WEB, something that nobody wants, but if it saves lives, what else should or could we do. Take all the guns off people and let them destroy each other over the internet, guns kill quicker.

    • Hi Crazy One, welcome to the News with Nipples. Um, that’s not really a quick note. I don’t think you can compare the Chris Mitchell stuff to teen bullying. Mitchell is in a position of power and is more than capable of defending himself – and used his national newspaper to do so. Julie Posetti does not have a national newspaper in which she can publish a story defending herself without making an effort to contact the other party. Also, I was on twitter on Friday when it happened, and I didn’t see people posting defamatory tweets about Mitchell or Posetti. As to the issue of truth – the JEA session was recorded, so we can all know if Posetti’s tweet was an accurate account of what was said. If it was accurate, then Mitchell needs to take it up with Asa Wahlquist.

      Now, cyber bullying. People have bullied each other long before we had the internet and I completely disagree with your last point – that we have to control the internet because of a few people doing the wrong thing. That’s rubbish. We haven’t banned driving because a few people speed.

  7. My mother killed herself in 1999. Since then I’ve had a deep interest (for obvious reasons) in what and how the media portrays when it comes to suicides.

    Being in New Zealand I’ve followed more of the local, so it’s interesting to see an Australian perspective. Thank you for posting this.

    xx Dee

    • Hi Curvaceous Dee, welcome to the News with Nipples. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been – and still is – for you. And the pain your mother must have been in to make that decision.

      How does the NZ media compare to the Oz media with this?

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  9. Interesting! In Africa we do not discuss suicide because it is an abomination. Even when the media reports suicide deaths they do not intrude at the level you have just discussed.
    However I do agree that it is hard for people to discuss mental problems. I think it is a very hard topic to discuss inspite of where you come from.

    • Hello lonesomebounty, welcome to the News with Nipples. Thankfully, there isn’t usually this level of intrusion in reports of suicide deaths – just this one because it involves female twins.

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