Rethinking Suicide Reporting: A Journalist’s Journey from Grief to Responsibility
By Sharon Maombo
When my former university classmate and good friend sadly passed away by suicide in 2022, I was devastated.
His sudden death shook those of us who knew him as a kind, reliable, naturally funny and passionate friend.
We were close during the years we were at school and I still have fond memories of him despite having gone for a long while without us talking after graduation.
At the time of his passing, I was already a journalist and much as I was curious to know why my sweet, sweet friend had chosen to end his life so tragically, I restrained myself and chose to give his family the privacy they deserved.
It was therefore a surprise when I saw a story, which has since been pulled down on request of the family, on a media website shared on Twitter.
In an obvious attempt at turning a private grief into a public spectacle for consumption, the article depicted my friend as a ‘disturbed man’.
Yes, my friend had battled mental health issues towards the end of his life, but the choice of words by the author of the unfortunate article and a lack of empathy for the grieving family was disappointing.
As a journalist, I was embarrassed. Disgusted.
This incident got me thinking. How tactful are we, really, in reporting sensitive topics such as suicide?
Before my friend died, I had written a couple of stories on the subject and I went back to review some of them. Thankfully I was able to edit the errors I had made in the articles including unnecessary descriptions of methods used.
A recently released report by the Baraza Media Lab on suicide reporting through social media by Kenya’s broadcasting stations shows that an outrageous 179 tweets shared by the media in 2021 had harmful elements.
From including explicit descriptions of methods used such as the display of noose, pills and bullets to lacking the responsible phrases used when reporting about suicide, which is “died by suicide” or “took his/her/their life” and not “he/she committed suicide”.
Mind you, the 179 tweets are from a review period of just one year.
As a website editor, the worst practice for me is when a reporter uses insensitive and sensationalised headlines such as “botched suicide attempt” or “shooting spree”.
The big shift in media should include neglected conversations on good practice
These days, most media houses are strategizing to reach younger audiences and are at least trying to carefully curate content that makes them stand out in the digital ecosystem.
Now is the time to learn (or relearn) good practice when reporting on suicide.
The Media’s Role: Sensationalism and the “Werther Effect”
The World Health Organization estimates that 1,408 people die by suicide in Kenya every year, translating to almost four deaths daily. According to the World Bank, the suicide mortality rate in Kenya was reported at 6.1 percent in 2019.
The media should not add to the contagion. Research suggests that certain ways of reporting suicide can contribute to imitative suicides or suicide clusters – when an unusually high rate of suicides occurs in a specific region across a specified period.
A 1974 study by sociologist David P. Phillips in the United States, sought to find an empirical link of the dreadful pattern of suicide reporting in newspapers and the spike in actual suicides after publications.
Among his findings were that in the month immediately following every front-page story about suicide in a major newspaper between 1947 and 1968 in the United States and Britain, suicide rates consistently increased, and only in the specific region where the article was published.
Phillips dubbed this copycat phenomenon the “Werther Effect,” a reference a novel by Johann von Goethe published in 1774 titled Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), that tells of an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide.
It was said that after the publication, people in many countries were so persuaded by the novel that “if disappointed by love, they imitated Werther’s manner of death”. The book was subsequently banned in several European countries.
While it is hard to ascertain today whether there is a spike in suicide among broken-hearted people, modern psychiatric research suggests the existence of the so-called Werther Effect. That’s why countries have put up guidelines for the media on reporting the matter.
To prevent this phenomenon, I think a good place to start would be for social media publishers to be reminded of the guidelines by the WHO and the Media Council of Kenya that provide insights on what to avoid when reporting about suicide by the media.
For instance, the out-of-context use of the word “suicide”, in phrases such as “political suicide” when reporting on party politics and elections, should no longer get a pass.
To sort the difficult challenge of whether to report a story about a specific suicide case and avoiding components that may contribute to suicide contagion, journalists can share stories of people who have overcome their suicidal thoughts and found meaning in their lives.
My former boss once said, negative stories may sell but positive ones have a bigger impact.
As people entrusted to educate and inform the masses, media organizations should provide coverage that is insightful, responsible and helpful in the light of this urgent social crisis.
I think now is the time for Kenyan journalists to think about what their roles and responsibilities to Kenya are. Now is the time to imagine what representative journalism can look like in Kenya. As professionals in the media fraternity, there is a unique opportunity to influence the national dialogue on suicide prevention by disseminating positive messages on social media.
It is imperative for us, as journalists and media organizations, to recognize the weight our words carry when reporting on sensitive topics like suicide. We must shift our focus from sensationalism to responsibility, and from stigmatization to empathy.