In August last year an 11-year-old school boy took his own life. The boy, who lived in a small Massachusetts community, was in fifth grade at the prestigious Andover School. The local newspaper, the Eagle-Tribune, published a story about the boy’s death but didn’t indicate how he died.
That editorial decision led to a torrent of emails, phone calls and letters to the paper’s editor, William Ketter, who penned a column for the paper’s opinion pages four days after the report on the boy’s death was published.
Mr Ketter’s op-ed piece was a brave piece of writing. He told his readers that his decision not to publish the cause of the boy’s death had been wrong. And, he observed, “Newspapers have long been squeamish about suicide, for the same reason we don’t identify the victims of sex crimes. There’s a traditional social stigma attached to both even though there should not be.”
Now contrast Mr Ketter’s bravery with the timidity shown by our national broadcaster, the ABC, earlier this year when it cut from a film a scene showing a 79-year-old woman putting a plastic bag over her head.
Janine Hosking’s documentary, Mademoiselle and the Doctor, told the story of Lisette Nigot who met Philip Nitshcke and talked about how she might end her own life.
The offending scene was shown in the context of a discussion about the options of suicide that Lisette had considered. The “plastic bag” scene was brief and symbolic. It was not in any sense a pictorial essay in the methodology of death by a plastic bag.
But it was all too much for the presenter of the late night ABC TV program, Compass. The program’s presenter, Geraldine Doogue, cut that scene from airing when she presented the documentary. According to Ms Doogue, she “was straight away concerned about some of the scenes with the so-called ‘plastic bag option’. I can’t remember ever before being so concerned about a sequence in a Compass program … this sequence clearly, in my view, breached our editorial codes and responsibility as a public broadcaster."
Ms Doogue’s views were supported by the managing director of the ABC, Russell Balding, who would not allow Media Watch to show the scene even though, on June 13 this year, it devoted a story to the matter.
Now you might say that there is a clear difference between the Andover school boy case and that involving Mademoiselle and the Doctor. Well in one sense there is - on the one hand we have the pictorial portrayal of a possible method of death, and on the other the failure to publish in print the reason for death.
But a deeper analysis of the two cases reveals a distinct difference in media attitudes’ towards death by suicide. In the case of the Andover school boy, a newspaper was prepared to acknowledge that, as one of its readers put it, “If it is a story, don’t tell me half of it”. In the case of the ABC’s censoring of Mademoiselle and the Doctor, it was an example of the “squeamishness” about which Mr Ketter spoke. The ABC is happy to allow verbal discussion about suicide and even the methods, so long as there is no pictorial display, even a fleeting one.
Mr Ketter was pushing the boundaries in a small community about what the media should say about death, the ABC was retreating from its duty to allow the whole story to be told.
These two cases draw out a much bigger conflict. It’s the hypocrisy of the media, about the portrayal of any form of death other than that by natural causes. In the US, the UK, Australia and numerous other countries, there are detailed guidelines for the media to follow when reporting on suicide. These guidelines are very detailed, right down to the language that can be used to describe a death by suicide. The underlying premise for the guidelines is generally the “copycat theory.” In other words, that there is research which links the reporting of suicide to the number of suicides in a community. Now this research is problematic and ambiguous, but let’s leave that to one side.
This is a transcript of a speech given to The Exit International Conference in Brisbane on November 5, 2005.
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