Two celebrities committed suicide this week. This Tuesday, fashion designer Kate Spade took her own life, and on Friday, chef Anthony Bourdain did the same. One journalist is concerned that the media coverage of these tragic deaths is actually harmful.
In the wake of Spade’s death, many news outlets covered the details of the suicide and the contents of the final note she left behind. Kelly McBride with The Poynter Institute pointed out that some of the media coverage even included photos of Spade’s body being rolled away on a stretcher.
Examining the media coverage of Spade’s suicide, Alia E. Dastagir with USA Today observes that these detailed reports transformed Spade’s death into “a spectacle.” Such a spectacle, she says, can be life-threatening to people who are already considering suicide. To these people, “the rehashing of [the] details [of a suicide] can mean the difference between life and death” because it could encourage them to commit suicide themselves.
This phenomenon is called “suicide contagion,” and it’s happened before. For instance, Dastagir reports that suicides rose almost 10 percent following the actor Robin Williams’ suicide. Suicides involving his specific “method” of killing himself went up over 30 percent in that period.
If nothing else, stats like this tell us that the media need to be careful when it comes to suicide stories. Rather than treating these sad events as juicy stories, news services should see them as opportunities to spread awareness of the reality of suicide and the ways to help prevent it.
McBride agrees. “When we cover suicide irresponsibly, we actually make the problem worse.” In her mind, including photos of Spade’s body was irresponsible of the media—as was the inclusion of excessive detail about her suicidal act. She thinks that some outlets simply sensationalized Spade’s suicide by including the means of her death in the headline. That way, the facts of her death acted as clickbait rather than as the sad details of a tragedy. “If you feel compelled to state the means of death,” McBride writes, “you need to do it in a way that doesn’t make it the focal point.”
This unintended effect of covering suicides isn’t just a warning for the media, though. It’s a warning for all of us. We should never treat stories like Spade’s as entertainment. Rather, we ought to look to these sad events as reminders of the God-shaped hole in everyone’s heart and of the ache that stays behind when that hole remains unfilled. In this hopeless world, we should be ready to share the reason for the hope that we have, not to balk at the hopelessness.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please don't wait to get help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and talk to someone 24/7.
Leah Hickman is a 2017 graduate of Hillsdale College’s English program. She freelances for BreakPoint.org and has written pieces for multiple Hillsdale College campus publications as well as for ChristianAnswers.net/Spotlight and the Discover Laura Blog. Read more by Leah at aworldofgrasspeople.blogspot.com.
Photo courtesy: Flickr.com
Publication date: June 8, 2018