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 The term ‘committed suicide’ is outdated, use ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took his/her own life’ instead.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.