The coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide in some sections of the Indian media once again exposed the utter disregard of official guidelines. Sensationalizing celebrity suicides seems like a global problem. Here is a look at what the guidelines say and global experience.
The recent death and reported suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, has received a lot of media attention and was discussed extensively on social media platforms. On 14 June 2020, the actor was found dead at his home in Mumbai. The provisional post-mortem report suggested that the death was caused due to asphyxia i.e. death due to suffocation, as per media reports.
Mumbai police, who are investigating the matter has confirmed it as a case of suicide. News and opinions about ‘Depression’ being a possible reason for suicide is being widely circulated across various media platforms. However, any information regarding this is speculative and in-conclusive, as there is no official statement in this regard from the authorities.
The coverage of this incident in certain media has come for criticism from multiple quarters of the society. Ranging from the headlines of shows, information & speculation being discussed, interviews with grieving family of the victim etc. have been considered to be insensitive and not as per the journalistic ethics.
But is there a defined code of conduct for media while covering cases of suicide? The story looks at the existing guidelines in India and across the world and how some media houses violated these guidelines.
Press Council of India adopted guidelines for newspaper and news agencies in 2019
On 13 September 2019, the Press Council of India adopted guidelines on the reporting on Suicides.
These guidelines were based on the WHO report – ‘Preventing Suicide- A Resource for Media Professionals Update 2017’. These guidelines specify the activities that Newspapers and News agencies need to refrain from while reporting cases of suicide.
The underlying motive of these guidelines is to not sensationalise any case of suicide and to keep it a low-key affair. This extends to not giving a prominent place in the news bulletins to being cautious with the language being used.
WHO Guidelines are part of a larger worldwide initiative for prevention of suicide
World Health Organization (WHO) identifies suicide as a major public health problem which requires special attention. It further notes that the factors which contribute to suicide and its prevention are complex and based on evidence, it can be stated that media has an important role to play.
WHO has collaborated with International Association of Suicide Prevention (IASP) in developing the guidelines for media professionals in dealing with suicide cases. Evidence suggest that vulnerable individuals are prone to be influenced and tend to engage in imitative behaviours when they come across reports of suicide.
Review of studies indicate that the imitative suicidal behaviour varies over a period of time. It tends to be at peak during the first three days and levels off by a period of two weeks, and in few cases lasting longer. Research studies indicate that the tendency of imitative suicide gets amplified when:
- Prominent, extensive and sensationalized coverage of the suicide happens
- There is a connect with the person reported in news story, especially in case of a celebrity or is held in high regard by the viewer or reader. Young people suffering from depression are more prone to this
- Explicit description of the method of suicide which can result in that method being employed
Hence WHO advocates exercising caution when reporting suicide. However, WHO recognizes that fact that sometimes suicide does need to be reported in view of the news worthiness associated with it and hence suggests guidelines to ensure that the reporting is accurate, responsible and ethical.
Apart from WHO, various charity and volunteering organizations that work in the domain of suicide prevention and support have put out directives to media about their responsibilities in wake of any suicide, most of this based on their real time observations and experiences.
Samaritans is one such charity organization who are involved in providing emotional support to those who are in emotional distress or are at risk of suicide. Based on their own research and understanding, they have put out guidelines and supporting fact sheets for media’s reference.
International media has also resorted to sensationalism and excessive coverage
In view of the guidelines issues by WHO, various Media & journalists networks and resources have put in efforts to educate and sensitize journalists regarding the coverage of suicides. However, time and again there have been instances of media resorting to sensationalizing and providing excessive coverage of incidents of suicides, especially high-profile suicides.
A report by BBC, highlights the excessive coverage of suicide of famous Actor and comedian Robin Williams by various media including newspapers and television channels. It points out the elaborate details provided in a few newspapers regarding the method of committing suicide. The BBC report also highlights the issues relating to the headlines in newspapers covering the incident. CNN had highlighted that, although media did improve over the period of time in the way it reports suicides, in this specific incident there have been instances of excessive speculation. A report in the Time indicates that there has been a spike in suicide deaths after the incident involving Robin Williams, with research studies supporting it.
Comparatively, media’s reaction and coverage has been more subdued and in lines with the ethical guidelines when reporting a recent suicide incident relating to a celebrity – suicide of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington , in 2017.
Need for stricter action on noncompliance of guidelines
The coverage of recent suicide case in India, by various news channels indicates clear breach of multiple guidelines. Speculation, insensitive and sensational headlines, intruding the privacy of the bereaved family and interviewing them with unnecessary questions, explicit details etc. are few of the evident violations. Especially, Hindi vernacular media is seen to be more at fault with the English media being comparatively restrained.
The guidelines issued by WHO are more of a reference for the media to follow and are not binding. Depending on the local conditions, each country is required to develop its own set of guidelines that are more relatable. However, in most of the countries including the developed nations, these guidelines serve as a referential purpose and are not enforceable. The professionalism and adherence to ethics of various media houses, and the environment within the country influence the adherence to the same.
Since adulation of celebrities is commonplace in India, the Press Council & the government must ensure strict enforcement of the guidelines. This could go a long way in sensitizing people about suicide and why not to resort to such extreme step.
Featured Image: Sensationalizing Celebrity Suicides