Since June onwards, the Indian media has received flak for its irresponsible reporting around the death of Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput. But, this is not the first time that several newspapers and media channels have been accused of using attention-grabbing headlines and outlandish puns for reporting suicides. For many years, suicides have been reported by using incriminating language and such reports have largely gone unchecked.
To make the media more aware about the impact of its suicide reportage, the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy (CMHLP), Indian Law Society, Pune in collaboration with the Thakur Foundation has started a new initiative. Project SIREN- Suicide Reporting India Watch is a score card to rate media reports on suicide developed by the Indian Mental Health Observatory (IMHO), a repository for information on mental health laws and practices created by CMHLP. Currently, it only focuses on the leading English newspapers but is going to expand its reach steadily.
The project's first findings were reported on World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, 2020.
A quarterly review of articles reporting suicides published by the nine leading English newspapers, the score card rates the article on ten positive and ten negative parameters. These parameters are modelled on WHO's 2017 guidelines for media professionals while reporting suicides. In the first analysis of 1,318 articles reporting suicides between April 1 and June 30, 2020, the project researchers found that none of the 9 media houses scored more than three in positive parameters while two scored more than 4 in negative parameters.
BOOM contacted Dr. Soumitra Pathare, Director at CMHLP and who is leading Project SIREN to understand how the project idea germinated. "The project was ideated in early March. We felt there was a need to focus on evidence-based suicide interventions to show the media houses the impact of their reporting."
At the time of Sushant Singh Rajput's death, Dr. Pathare was one of the few who highlighted the use of the word 'committing suicide' by several media houses. One of the guidelines asks media professionals to not use language that associates suicides to crimes and sins. 'Death by suicide' is a recommended way to report the same news.
"We intend to help in improving the reporting around suicides through training as irresponsible reporting could be a trigger for further suicides," said Dr. Pathare.
"Our role here is not to name and shame anyone, but to show the mirror to leading media houses in ways they can improve their reporting on the basis of existing guidelines and through this score card," says Tanmoy Goswami, a journalist himself, who is acting as an advisor for the project.
Goswami who writes on mental health and is the Sanity correspondent at The Correspondent also stated that the project team aims to be a knowledge partner in the process of improving suicide reporting. "This is an unprecedented move and we are not interested in media censorship . We are open to feedback and collaboration."
Parameters and Scores
Over 50,000 news articles from nine leading English daily newspapers published between April 1- June 30 were scanned by the project team. Articles that reported suicide or attempted suicide were rated a score of 1- 10 in both the positive and negative parameters. If the same article was reported more than once to be a continuous part of the news cycle, only the first article was rated. Generic articles on suicides and suicide prevention, articles on suicidal tendencies and ideations, deaths that were being investigated or were undetermined were excluded from the ratings.
Each article was rated 1 or 0 depending on whether they followed the positive or negative parameters. Each article's total score was then calculated and the average score was given to the publication.
Positive Parameters of Suicide Reporting
Including latest and operational information that provides details about suicide prevention are the first two parameters that should be included in any reporting. Linking the death to mental illnesses by using mental health medical terminology as well as discussing alcohol and drug abuse as the causes of death are other important positive parameters.
It is essential that the articles have quotes by mental health and suicide prevention experts while also trying to reduce the stigma around suicides. Providing credible statistics, challenging myths around suicides, giving examples of hopeful stories, and verifying the credibility of the suicide from official authorities are other positive parameters that articles reporting deaths should follow.
Negative Parameters of Suicide Reporting
Articles with attention-grabbing headlines, using criminalizing language, describing methods in detail, disclosing details of the suicide site were rated 1 on the negative parameter score-card.
In addition, if the article reduces the suicide to a single factor, attaches photos of the deceased, method of suicide or of the family, includes information of the grieving family, publishes notes, texts or social media posts, it will be scored on the negative parameter. The guidelines also recommend that the suicide should not be reported on the front page.
The Hindu performed better than the other publications in the positive parameters while the overall worst performer was The Tribune. Only the Hindu scored more than 2 in the positive parameters.
Very few of the articles report credible statistics highlighting the actual public health burden of suicides. The National Crime Research Bureau in their latest offering shared that there were 1,34,516 deaths in 2018 in India. None of the articles tried to reduce the stigma around COVID-19 or challenged COVID-19 myths.
Project SIREN- Future Steps
While the project currently only focuses on nine newspapers, it plans to expand in the upcoming phases.
"We plan to include regional newspapers next. Television and social media will be a little challenging but we are working on addressing reporting on these mediums as well," Dr. Pathare added.
Sensationalized suicide reporting by media can be a trigger for further suicidal ideation, as this study shows. Suicide contagion, as scientists call this phenomenonm was seen to increase deaths by suicide by 30% when the methods of death by suicide were reported by the media, in a review of 20 studies. The impact was higher when the media covered the death of a celebrity, this systematic review by mental health professors conducted in 2020 states.
Accessible data on the impact of reportage will assist media houses to work on their process. "Being a part of the community, I know how page views sometimes drive reporting, Our data will give them a chance to reform and reflect," Goswami added.
If you or any one you know is showing suicidal tendencies, several suicide prevention helplines are willing to help. The suicide prevention helplines can be accessed here.
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