16 January 2015

Exits and ethics

'Suicide Reporting Within British Newspapers’ Arts Coverage: Content Analysis of Adherence to Media Guidelines' by Alexandra Pitman and Fiona Stevenson in (2014) Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention 1-8 comments
Many suicide prevention strategies promote media guidelines on suicide reporting, given evidence that irresponsible reporting of suicide can influence imitative suicidal behavior. Due to limited resources, monitoring of guideline adherence has tended to focus on news outputs, with a risk of neglecting other journalistic content. Aims: To determine whether British newspapers’ arts coverage adheres to media guidelines on suicide reporting.
Method: Purposive sampling was used to capture current national practice on suicide reporting within newspapers’ arts coverage of exhibitions. Recent major UK exhibitions by artists who had died by suicide were identified: Kirchner, Rothko, Gorky, and Van Gogh. Content analysis of all UK national newspaper coverage of these exhibitions was performed to measure the articles’ adherence to widely accepted media guidelines.
Results: In all, 68 newspaper reviews satisfied inclusion criteria, with 100% failing to show full adherence to media guidelines: 21% used inappropriate language; 38% provided explicit descriptions of the suicide; 7% employed simplistic explanations for suicide triggers; 27% romanticized the suicide; and 100% omitted information on sources of support.
Conclusion: British newspapers’ arts coverage of exhibitions deviates considerably from media guidelines on the reporting of suicide.
The authors state that
Content analysis identified seven media guidelines that had been breached by any of the included articles (see Figure 1). These were assimilated into five codes:
  • Use of inappropriate language (including the phrases “to commit suicide” or “a successful suicide”) 
  • Explicit descriptions of the suicidal act (including suicide method, and quotations from suicide notes) 
  • Providing a simplistic explanation for the triggers for suicide 
  • Romanticizing or glorifying the suicide 
  • Omitting to provide sources of support for people affected by suicide
Content analysis showed that all 68 articles (100%) had breached at least one of these five media guidelines, with all 68 omitting to provide details of support available (see Table 1).
Practice outside the mass media is noncompliant with those guidelines. Some listeners presumably need trigger warnings - or would benefit from intervention by Dr Bowdler - before encountering 2 Kings 24 (two bears righteously disposing of 42 students), Judges 9:52-54, Judges 16:29-30, 1 Samuel 31:4-6 (esp 2 Samuel 1:2-17), 2 Samuel 17:1-29, 1 Kings 16:15-20 and 1 Kings 18:40.

Much of the art in national galleries features exemplary deaths - Sardanapalus, Lucretia, Ophelia, Socrates, Ajax, Cato, Cleopatra. Much art (for examples renderings of the Crucifixion by Grünewald or of the dead Christ by Carracci and Mantegna) is disquieting, meant as an aid to contemplation rather than mere decoration. Presumably collections, rather than merely reports about artists, "may expose readers to potentially harmful influences on attitudes to suicidality" if we adopt the words of the authors.

The authors comment
Analysis of this sample of British newspapers’ arts coverage of exhibitions has shown poor compliance with media guidelines on the reporting of suicide, with 100% of articles omitting to provide information on sources of support. Even when using less stringent criteria, by excluding the expectation of providing information on sources of support, the majority (45, 67%) of articles transgressed any of the other four guidelines. Only one of the 68 articles was written by a news journalist, with the rest constituting the output of arts and features journalists. This sample therefore reflects one measure of the implementation of media guidelines beyond core news teams. Given existing evidence of the harmful effects of irresponsible reporting on suicidal behavior (Chen et al., 2013; Cheng et al., 2007; Pirkis & Blood, 2010; Pirkis et al., 2007; Sisask & Varnik, 2012; Stack, 2003; Zahl & Hawton, 2004), these results suggest that some arts coverage of exhibitions within British newspapers may expose readers to potentially harmful influences on attitudes to suicidality.
Comparison with other findings is not possible because no international studies have focused solely on arts output, and no UK studies have analyzed newspaper content. ....
Our findings suggest a need for further UK and international research to measure:
  • Awareness of media guidelines among reporters in each journalistic field; 
  • Journalists’ perceptions of whether guidelines are applicable to their field; 
  • The impact of suicide reporting within different journalistic and media content; 
  • The impact of irresponsible reporting of historical suicides; and 
  • The effect of interventions designed to encourage journalists across a range of fields and media channels to report suicide responsibly.
... The articles included in this analysis reported deaths occurring up to a century ago, while the majority of research on media effects has focused on contemporaneous deaths. Feedback from national seminars at which these results were presented indicated that media guidelines may be considered as less relevant to arts journalists because historical accounts of an artist’s suicide may have less influence on suicidal behavior than contemporaneous reports. However, there is no research evidence to refute the impact of irresponsible reporting of historical suicides, and media guidelines are intended for all branches of the media, including arts coverage of recently deceased and historically deceased individuals.
Seminar participants also suggested that culturally an artist’s suicide may be regarded as less newsworthy (and implicitly more acceptable) than the suicide of celebrities such as sports professionals, because of beliefs about mental health difficulties feeding artistic creativity. If these views, which reinforce the romanticization of artists’ suicides, are widely held, there may be a need for media work to challenge an apparently dangerous glorification. It is difficult to predict which types of high-profile suicides will have greatest resonance among those at risk of imitative suicide, and artists may take on the status of celebrities for literary and artistic professionals. While Wasserman’s 1984 study found a fall in suicides (observed minus expected) in the month after the death of Mark Rothko, the mythology that has grown around his death in subsequent decades may now contain strong personal significance to groups at risk.
The authors acknowledge that
The reductionist approach of content analysis, and its reliance on numbers, may be inappropriate for capturing nuances of meaning within articles of this kind.
They go on to state
However, the use of clear and established guidelines was intended to increase inter-rater reliability by increasing the likelihood of similar interpretations. Although the deductive analysis was theory-driven, an interpretive element was involved in coding texts, subject to inter-rater agreement. Our κ value was high in comparison to similar studies (Machlin et al., 2012), but there remains the possibility that other researchers might make different inferences. This applies particularly to guidelines involving more subjective judgments of the language, tone, and structure used throughout each article in the context of the artist’s full biographical information. Individual appraisal of whether a suicide has been romanticized or sensationalized is particularly subjective (Machlin et al., 2012). Finally, despite best efforts, incomplete archiving may have led to some articles having been overlooked.