Is Indian media complying with suicide reporting guidelines? Study shows language used by many newspapers problematic

According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, there have been other studies that have too noted this correlation between sensational portrayals of suicide by the media versus the risk of attempted suicide and suicide rates. Media reporting on suicide can cause a 1 to 2% variance in suicides

Manasi Chandu October 01, 2020 17:17:11 IST
Is Indian media complying with suicide reporting guidelines? Study shows language used by many newspapers problematic

Representational image. Reuters

"In the age of rage bait and juicing TRPs for viewership, journalists have thrown every rule book out just for numbers. If journalism is going to turn into a game of numbers, then everyone is at a risk," said author and columnist Nilanjana Roy when asked why several newsrooms in India demonstrated a lack of sensitivity and empathy while reporting on deaths by suicide. "Some of the reporting done these days drives people to despair," Roy further said.

The death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has brought forth a huge moral crisis that has befallen the Indian media. This is not the first time a celebrity’s death has garnered so much attention. But there has been a worrisome trend in the way in which the media has chosen to report on his death by suicide by embracing a language that is not only detracting to the deceased and his family but also problematic on a more fundamental level.

The impact of sensational reporting of suicide and the subsequent increase in suicide rates was first studied in 1974 by Philips DP, who found suicide rates to be higher in the months where the US press had front-page articles on suicide, compared to months where there were no such articles. He coined the term “Werther effect.”

According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, there have been other studies that have too noted this correlation between sensational portrayals of suicide by the media versus the risk of attempted suicide and suicide rates. Media reporting on suicide can cause a 1 to 2 percent variance in suicides, according to Ayal Schaffer, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Assuming a conservative 8 lakh suicide deaths is reported each year globally (as per WHO data), about 8,000 to 16,000 lives are affected, where the language and imagery used by the media can have a decisive impact.

Among the key factors that appeared to create an uptick in numbers were: the suicide method appearing in the headline, reports that firearm suicides had the highest lethality, heavy detail on the suicide method, and statements that made suicide seem inevitable.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the word suicide is defined as the act of killing oneself. “The act must be deliberately initiated and performed by the person concerned in the full knowledge, or expectation, of its fatal outcome.”

As per 2019 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, a total of 1,39,123 suicides were reported in India— an increase of 3.4 percent in comparison to 2018, which saw 1,34,516 suicides. Hindustan Times reported that a person died by suicide every four minutes in 2019.

In recent times, the coronavirus induced lockdown has added to the woes of the general public with a rise in job losses and pay cuts. According to the study conducted by a group of researchers, suicide has found to be the leading cause for over 300 non-coronavirus deaths reported during the lockdown period. Researchers found that 338 deaths which occurred between 19 March and 2 May this year were related to lockdown.

Local NGOs have also seen a rise in the duration of distress emails and calls ever since the lockdown began. Connecting Trust, a Pune-based suicide prevention non-profit organisation (NGO) saw a double-fold increase in distress emails from 15 to 30 per month during the lockdown period.

Liyaan Sataravala, an awareness program coordinator for Connecting Trust told Firstpost that while the number of calls per day did not see a noticeable change, the duration of distress calls was longer ever since the lockdown began.

“We on average receive five calls a day, with approximately 123 calls per month. But ever since the lockdown started, we noticed an increase in the duration of each call, which now is approximately 45 minutes per call,” said Sataravala.

Taking notice of the potential influence by the media, the India Mental Health Observatory (IMHO), an initiative of the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy at Indian Law Society, has developed a scorecard to rate media reports on suicide in India.

The initiative named Project SIREN evaluated nine leading English newspapers in India, which includes all city editions, for the second quarter – 1 April, 2020 to 30 June, 2020 –scrutinising 1,318 articles on suicide and attempted suicide.

The nine English newspapers included are The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Indian Express, The New Indian Express, The Telegraph, Mirror, The Tribune, and The Economic Times.

The IMHO developed a scorecard, which consists of both positive and negative parameters, derived from the WHO guidelines on Media Reporting of Suicides.

According to this scorecard, The Hindu did well on the April to June scorecard, while publications like The Tribune and Mirror performed poorly.

The parameters chosen for the positive scorecard are newspapers that follow most of the WHO guidelines, including verified information and facts from an official source, challenges popular myths about suicide, includes information on national or state-level support services that include suicide prevention centres.

The negative scorecard includes articles with attention-grabbing headlines, use of phrases that associate suicide as a crime or sin, reduces the reason for death to a single factor or event.

Sr No Newspaper Positive scorecard Negative scorecard
1 The Times of India 1.12 3.37
2 Hindustan Times 1.31 3.28
3 The New Indian Express 1.07 3.42
4 The Telegraph 1.03 3.37
5 The Hindu 2.71 2.35
6 The Indian Express 1.49 3.32
7 Mirror 1.32 4.13
8 The Tribune 1 4.04
9 The Economic Times 1.13 3.25

*For the positive scorecard, the best score a newspaper can get is 10, and the worst is 0. On the negative scorecard, the best score that a newspaper can get is 0 and the worst is 10.

As per the study, The Hindu outperformed other publications as its copies, about 88 percent, had included contact information for suicide prevention helplines. The newspaper had published 133 articles on suicides and attempted suicides from April to June 2020 from 11 editions across the country.

The Tribune performed poorly on the study’s positive scorecard as the IMHO found that about 15 percent of the articles published by the newspaper drew a link between the mental state of the individual and their suicidal behaviour, which is against the mandated WHO guidelines. The IMHO studied 27 articles from the newspaper on suicides and attempted suicides from April to June 2020, from 7 editions across the country.

Mirror ranked lowest on the negative scorecard of the study which had 78 articles on suicides and attempted suicides from April to June 2020, from four editions across the country. About 91 percent of the 78 articles had attention-grabbing headlines.

While The Hindu has done relatively well in comparison to its competitors, there is still a long way to go for responsible reporting in Indian media.

'Aim to help media reflect on their reporting'

Dr Soumitra Pathare, director of the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy in Pune, who heads Project SIREN, told Firstpost that the purpose of the study was not to “name and shame” the media, but rather to point “a mirror” at them to reflect on their reporting.

Pathare noted that even though the WHO and the Press Council of India had come out with guidelines on suicide reporting, almost nobody follows them.

When asked if the study was specifically born out of a need to study the number of deaths due to suicide during the lockdown, Pathare said that it “wasn’t the case here.” The study was initiated as a tool for suicide prevention and to track reports of suicide attempts and deaths by suicide to encourage “greater uptake of good reporting practices across media platforms.“

Project SIREN, which studied 107 newspaper editions across 90 days, plans to keep updating this scoreboard in a way of keeping tabs on reportage of suicides in newspapers, Pathare said. “Our hope is to continue this study every quarter, so that by the end of the year, we can actually study if there has been any improvement or not in the kind of language used by the media.”

He also said that while the current study only looked at print media, the IMHO plans to further continue this study to cover online media publications like Scroll.in, Firstpost, The Wire and The Quint.

Importance of language while reporting

As per data by the WHO, India accounts for 36.6 percent of global suicides among women and 24.3 percent among men.

By using language that does not sensationalises or normalises suicide or presents it as a constructive solution to the problems, the media can help save 1-2 percent of the global population, making it paramount for journalists to take this more seriously.

The WHO guidelines clearly state: avoid sensationalising; avoid mention of the method of suicide; avoid photos; mention suicide helplines; emphasise that it is a symptom and treatable; and, avoid repetition of stories.

For example, a significant aspect of news reporting that cannot be overlooked is the news headline. The use of various words and statements in the media is not only triggering for the general population but more so for the people who might be in a vulnerable mental state.

For instance, the phrase ‘committed suicide’ is problematic as it equates the act with criminality. Another common mistake that publications often ignore is the use of visuals of the deceased person, without adequate trigger warnings.

These common representations in the media are terms as ‘suicide contagion’, which refers to an increase in suicide or suicidal behaviour after following or exposure to news. Publications are also instructed to provide helpline numbers or give alternatives, which helps create a safe way of documenting death, without risking or triggering anyone.

With studies observing a rise in deaths by suicide during the coronavirus pandemic and the current public discourse about Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide, there is an urgent need for media to focus on responsibly reporting on suicide.

While this is not the first time a celebrity's death has garnered national media attention, the aggressive and often triggering language used by the media channels, print and on TV, has been criticised severely.

Last week Trinamool Congress MP Pratima Mondal told the Parliament that Indian media had marked a "new low" while reporting the Sushant Singh Rajput case. Even the Press Council had to step in and direct media outlets to stop violating 'norms of journalistic conduct' while covering the late actor's death.

Firstpost spoke to journalists and experts to understand the importance of language in media, the grey area of reporting, and the way ahead for future journalists.

Experts stress on reporting language and context

Sanity correspondent at The Correspondent and suicide-prevention activist Tanmoy Goswami highlights the importance of language in reporting. “Language that indicates suicide is a way to "escape" difficult situations ends up legitimizing self-harm as an appropriate response to life's vagaries,” he told Firstpost.

Furthermore, carelessly invoking "depression" in every story on suicide can not only be considered illegal per the Mental Healthcare Act 2017, but also give the impression that mental illness necessarily leads to suicide – which is a "gross exaggeration", he added.

Goswami notes that in the case of celebrity suicides, “Language that is respectful and memorialises the life of the deceased rather than picking apart every detail around their death can have a salutary effect on the public mood.”

A grey area

One of the WHO guidelines notes that suicide reportage should not be given prominence, which is problematic in the Indian context. According to author and columnist Nilanjana Roy, instead of giving prominence to individual cases of suicides, the reportage should highlight the problems faced by the community as a whole.

“This would be a good way to highlight the context of the death tacitly, rather than pinpointing it on one individual as it puts immense pressure on the victim and their family,” Roy said.

Amrita Tripathi, founder-editor of The Health Collective, too felt that an individual person and family’s tragedy doesn’t need to be on the front page.

“Sometimes the media forgets that these are real people and real stories," Tripathi said. "The media can still be careful to remove the reference to the means of suicide, refer to data, and share helplines, to make it an informative, rather than sensational story. It should also start talking about some of the structural issues at play, have reporters engage with organisations who are working in this field to effect change.”

Going ahead

Journalists have to take it upon themselves to bring about awareness in their reporting.

“I think once this message reaches home that this can save lives and that suicide is preventable, they will automatically want to do better. The key has to be awareness-building and sensitising!” said Tripathi.

Goswami feels that the trick to responsible reporting may be placing oneself in place of the victim’s family and questioning what public interest does the story serve. He said, “Personally, I always ask myself how I'd feel if I read a disrespectful, sensational story on the death of a loved one that violates the family's privacy, speculates about the death, and ends up endangering other vulnerable people who might be reading the story.”

A collection of Suicide prevention helpline numbers is available here. Please reach out if you or anyone you know is in need of support. The All-India helpline number is: 022 2754 6669. Connecting Trust distress helpline: 9922004305, 9922001122 and distress email is: distressmailsconnecting@gmail.com

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