New research found that in the five months after comedian Robin Williams had committed suicide, there was a dramatic increase of almost 10 percent in suicide rates across the U.S., and it had a lot to do with how the media communicated the suicide to the public.
For several months, major news outlets repeatedly described or speculated on the suicide method and the site of suicide with all the visceral details, going against the basic standards established by the World Health Organization for how the media should cover suicides.
Reporting guidelines for celebrity suicides weren’t established arbitrarily. Previous studies have already documented the parallel increase between suicide rates and media coverage of suicide, and pointed at the risk of reinforcing suicidal tendencies by media reporting.
We also know that guiding the media on how to cover suicides does have an impact. For instance, popular rock star Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 had very little impact on suicides in the Seattle area where he lived, with the media being restrictive in its coverage, and accompanying it with suicide prevention messages. In contrast, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 was widely covered and was followed by a 10-12 percent increase in suicide rates.
So if both history and science are painting such an obvious risk for public health, what is guiding the media to do otherwise?
The answer should be easy to see: media outlets are guided by one thing, and that’s ratings, because ratings means money. It’s that simple.
This is why front pages and news programs made their coverage as sensationalist as possible in the case of Robin Williams, with some even portraying a glorified version of what happened. As long as it can win them more points in their battle for our attention, they will go for it.
Sadly, those who carry suicidal tendencies, those who are not as emotionally resilient as the rest of us, are the first to suffer the consequences. But it’s not only them, because we are all trapped within a vicious cycle: Headlines are becoming more obscene, while we are growing more oblivious to them, which in turn drives producers to create even more sensationalism, and the snowball just keeps rolling down the hill.
Robin Williams Wasn’t the Only One with Split Personality
Media outlets are not accountable to anyone besides their shareholders. As long as this continues to be the reality, the vicious cycle will continue to escalate. If we wish to make public health a real priority, then media outlets must be required by law to work together with psychologists, sociologists, and public health experts when it comes to covering events of such nature.
But there are even more lessons to learn from the case of Robin Williams. Like Williams himself, many people today lead a double life, appearing to laugh on the outside while crying on the inside. We’ve built a booming industry of distraction to keep ourselves continuously entertained, while depression has become the number one cause of illness and disability, and is the diagnosis most commonly associated with suicide.
Social media is encouraging and cultivating our “spilt personality” like nothing that came before it. We can hide dark and gloomy feelings behind colorful photos with glossy filters. We could have a thousand friends on Facebook yet no one to talk to, thousands on our contacts yet no one to connect with.
New Media Channels Are Bound to Emerge
The media is our broadest common environment, and it’s especially like that in the digital age. Sooner or later, we will have to see the need to make it a healthy environment for ourselves and our children.
But a change cannot happen before we recognize just how malleable we all are in the hands of media channels that only care about ratings. Whether we want it this way or not, our media channels affect us on multiple levels, from our worldviews to our health and wellbeing.
When we come to that realization, completely new media channels that are accountable to the people are bound to emerge. They will be channels that recognize the media’s role and responsibility in public health, in maintaining a balanced spirit in society rather than sensationalism, and most importantly, in contributing to social unity rather than division.
The internet can already provide the technical infrastructure for such a media revolution, but the drive from the people must come first.
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