Monday, January 05, 2009 

Suicide by churnalism.

As Sim-O notes over on the Sun Lies, the Sun and 12 other newspapers/news sites have been found in breach of clause 5 of the Press Complaints Commission's code over articles reporting the suicide of a man who decapitated himself with a chainsaw, all of which were found to have reported the method used in excessive detail, something of increasing concern due to the apparent number of copycat attempts after similar articles have been published. While I'm hardly one of those people who thinks we shouldn't so much as mention suicide or ways to kill yourself for fear that those that would otherwise live long and happy lives will kill themselves on a whim, what also has been to be kept in mind when publishing such articles is the potential for further distress to those left behind, especially when splashed all over the national press for what is little more than titillation value, so-called public interest or not.

Again though, this is a prime example of churnalism in action. It seems that none of the newspapers had reporters at the actual inquest, which naturally heard forensic detail about how the man had set-up and activated the chainsaw in order to kill himself, but rather that all the information was provided by the Press Association. The PA itself quickly realised that the first report had gone too far in giving a blow by blow account of the exact facts of the case, and issued an edited follow-up. By then though the initial account had been put up across the web, and few seem to have replaced it with the updated version. As Nick Davies argued in Flat Earth News, PA and the other wires are often considered to be authoritative and therefore don't need to be double-checked, even though they themselves are under the same time constraints as their print counterparts are. Likewise, in this instance few of the newspapers bothered to edit the initial report, or even if they did didn't edit it enough to the PCC's liking, which seems to have investigated the reports without an actual complaint being made, presumably because of their own concern about them.

The PCC emphasised the importance of editing in its statement:

However, this was not a sufficient defence [the copy having came from the PA]. Indeed, this case demonstrated the importance of the editing process in removing excessive detail before publication – both online and offline.

Of the 14 articles that were investigated, only the Metro's print version and the one in the Guardian were ruled to have not breached the code. The Guardian's is worth quoting because it seems to sum everything up perfectly concisely, without dwelling on the story:

A man cut off his own head with a chainsaw because he was "irrationally opposed" to leaving his home, which was due to be demolished, an inquest heard yesterday. David Phyall, 50, rigged the machine up with a timer before swallowing painkillers at his housing association flat in Bishopstoke, Hampshire, on July 5, the hearing at Winchester was told. At the time of his death Phyall, who had suffered from mental illness, was the only person living in the 1960s block. Recording a verdict of suicide, coroner Simon Burge said Phyall was "irrationally opposed to moving".

The PCC's adjudication decided "in a difficult judgement call" that the newspaper had "stayed on just the right side of the line". In others, such as the Sun's print version and the Daily Star, it decided that the opposite was the case and that they had included just "slightly too much" detail. None though responded in the way which the Daily Mirror did, which claimed that the method of suicide was so "exceptional" that reporting it was in the "public interest". Perhaps not knowing which battles to fight and which to not, it went on to argue that it didn't believe that copycats were likely, and "also questioned whether the restriction on the right to report inquests in full was practicable for newspapers or consistent with the principle of open justice". The Mirror might have had a point if the PCC were objecting to the details of a murder being reported in such a way, or if it was genuinely restricting the right to report on inquests completely rather than just asking newspapers to show discretion over cases involving suicide or apparent suicide, which are rarely of such public interest that the full details need to be known for justice to be seen to have been done, but it wasn't. Interestingly, the Mirror's Scottish sister, the Daily Record, accepted in good grace that its report had breached the code, "apologised, and acted to make sure that the back bench and night desk were more familiar with the terms of the Code in this area", which seems like a model response.

You could understand the Mirror's response more if its own reporters and editors had been involved in the story other than rewriting or editing it slightly, but they weren't. Surely the fact that the copy had been provided by an outside source, even if one routinely used, meant that it should have come under more attention, especially on a subject where the code is more than clear. Perhaps the reaction was more to do with the fact that the Mirror, along with the Express group and the Independent are the papers which have the fewest resources to work with and so less time to spend on messing around with the wire copy, especially when it is seen as high quality. Indeed, the Express recently made more than half of its subeditors redundant, with the Star having already done similar. Accordingly, the Star was raked over the coals while the paper protested that its sister had edited the story down to just mentioning the chainsaw, as if that was a defence.

As the recession takes hold and advertisers further desert the print media, more job losses are inevitable. With them will come the further triumph of churnalism, and as newspapers continue to try to appeal across the board and do everything, even more mistakes and complaints with them will be made. The future is, as Peter Wilby argues, the niche - either highbrow or lowbrow, not trying to be both. You can imagine that the Mail and Sun will likely survive, as will probably the Torygraph, Times and Guardian in their current forms, at least for now - the others may well fall by the wayside or go online only, although I can't imagine many seeking out the Star, Express or Mirror websites when everything they do is done elsewhere and almost always better. Before that happens, things will probably deteriorate rapidly, and like with the other victims of the recession outside those being made unemployed at least so far, the papers and their owners will have few others to blame but themselves.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008 

Reporting suicide compassionately.

A few years ago, for a number of reasons, I became suicidally depressed. This wasn't just teenage angst on a grander scale; I was positively a danger to myself. I self-harmed; I hung from a railway bridge over a river and wanted, desperately, to let myself go, and when I pulled myself back up, I hated myself and my pathetic nature even more. For those who've never been depressed, let alone severely depressed, you simply can't know how a person ever thinks or feels when they're in that sort of a downward spiral. The gloom, the mood, whether you call it a black dog as Churchill so accurately described it, or something different, both inhabits and inhibits your every action. In every different person it manifests itself in a different way: I tried, as best I could, to hide it. I laughed, I joked, I tried to participate; then I went home and probably cried while I walked. In my case, I went to sleep praying that I wouldn't wake up in the morning, and then when I woke up I was even angrier and sadder that my wish hadn't come true. Your constant desire, if not always at the front of your mind then nowhere near the back, is to die, and as quickly as possible. At moments I was absolutely furious, both at myself and at the world at large; in the next I was so self-defeating that I would have accepted anything that anyone had wanted to do to me.

Thankfully, and with the help of both anti-depressants and a NHS mental health team that has bent over backwards, I've made something approaching a recovery. I can't pretend that the experience hasn't deeply affected me, and it's certainly changed my perspective on a whole host of things. It also I would hope have given me an insight into what it's like to be mentally ill, temporarily or permanently. That's why the coverage on the "Bridgend suicides" is now so concerning me.

The media at large are now reporting that the 17th suicide within the space around of a year has occurred. There's a problem with that very fact to begin with: it implies that there's a connection between them. As the police and the coroner have been at pains to point out throughout, they have completely failed to find any link between the suicides; no evidence of any pact; nothing to suggest that the teenagers had been encouraging each other to kill themselves; and certainly nothing even to support the contention that there's a cult linked to the online memorials to those who have killed themselves on social networking websites.

Instead, what there certainly is is a growing belief that the heightened media coverage is only exacerbating the problem. Wherever or whenever the suicides began, the pattern appeared to be that friends of those that had committed suicide were also making attempts on their lives. Doubtless the loss of their friends influenced their actions, but it would be naive to believe that was the only reason why they tried to kill themselves. Now it seems to increasingly be that those who had no dealings with the others are making what could be copycat attempts, although it's impossible to be certain. That hanging seems to have been the method chosen certainly suggests that's the case. Of course, this could also be to fall into the same trap as the media themselves have; we might be looking for patterns that aren't there, when we know that mental health problems will now affect 1 in 4 at some point during their lives.

The pressure and media move into Bridgend does however seem to have had anything but a positive effect. Very few of the organisations involved in reporting have taken any notice for example of the Samaritans' guide to reporting suicide. A number of its sections are worth quoting:

A fine line remains between sensitive, intelligent reporting by the media and sensationalising the issue. The focus should be on educating and informing the public. Copycat suicides account for about six percent of all suicides and the imitative behaviour can follow certain types of news reports and other portrayals of suicide.

Consider the timing.

The coincidental deaths by suicide of two or more people makes the story more topical and newsworthy, but additional care is required in the reporting of "another suicide, just days after…", which might imply a connection. There are 17 suicides every day, most of which go unreported.

One of the findings of a systematic review of research literature on suicide and the media concluded that "certain portrayals tend to increase the likelihood that imitative behaviour will occur", with prominent or repetitive news coverage of particular concern. When added in to how misguided and sensational some of the coverage, especially in the tabloids with the largest circulation and most likely to be read by the young has been, there's a high possibility that at the moment the media is doing more harm than good.

I'm not one of those who is completely opposed to suicide or any discussion of it whatsoever for fear that people will get ideas. I think that's an entirely wrong and simplistic message which people use to put all the blame on everyone other than themselves, especially when the young kill themselves. There are times when suicide should be accepted as something approaching honourable, or as the least worst way out, rather than as something to be dismissed as cowardly or as leaving others to pick up the pieces. Every case needs to be assessed on its merits.

I think we can all agree though that those who have killed themselves in Bridgend, especially the teenagers, have not experienced enough of life to be able to make any sort of decision on whether their life is worth living or not. Those who are mourning the death of their friends need space to be able to grieve and come to terms with what has happened; losing friends young is always incredibly difficult to accept or make sense of, and is especially likely to affect someone for the rest of their life. The media need to back off, leave Bridgend and at the very least adhere to the recommendations of the Samaritans. While the media should not be personally blamed for anything that has happened, as that itself would be to simplify and ignore the multiple reasons behind what has occurred, it needs to respect the requests of an increasing amount of those in Bridgend itself and at the very least stop its rampant speculation and lack of feeling for those caught up in what is nothing less than a continuing tragedy.

Then again, Madeleine Moon is currently on Newsnight blaming the media when she was the one scaremongering recklessly about social networking sites in the first place. Perhaps there really isn't any connection whatsoever to anything.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008 

Scum and Mail-watch: "Cult" suicides and idiotic sensationalism.

Won't someone think of the children?

If there's ever a sign that the police are clutching at straws, it has to be in suggesting that the seven suicides that have occured in and around Bridgend in the last twelve months are somehow out of wanting to achieve "fame" on the internet by doing so. There are many reasons behind depression, and especially when it's at its most severe, wanting to die, but even when your thoughts are at their most twisted and self-defeating, I hazard to guess that gaining immortality on Bebo is not the foremost reason for ending your own life.

Of course, whether the police have suggested a link between the 7 suicides or not is up in the air: the Scum claims "cops" fear this could be the case, while on the BBC Tim Jones of the local police makes reasonably clear, unsurprisingly, that there's no link between all of them and no evidence of a suicide pact. Despite this, the Mail led this morning with the usual scaremongering garbage about "a suicide cult" and that "police have private concerns that youngsters may consider it fashionable to have an internet memorial site and are killing themselves for reasons of prestige." Teenagers on social networking sites might be fucking stupid, but they're not
that fucking stupid. Copycat attempts are one thing, especially if those involved were close, but to suggest that it's a cult on the basis of that and because they all used social networking is ignorant beyond belief.

At the bottom of this appears to a basic misunderstanding about the memorial pages which have been popping up on MySpace etc when the owner of the profile page dies. They are then often turned into pages of rememberance, tributes and in the case of some of these Bebo pages, apparently putting bricks into a wall of rememberance. Madeleine Moon, who could only be an MP, seems to think that these pages are romanticising suicide, rather than paying tribute to those who died. If these pages are anything like the forum threads I've often read when a member of an online community kills themselves, the very last thing they tend to do is promote suicide; quite the opposite is usually the case. Some tribute pages, especially set-up to those who become infamous online, such as Mitchell Henderson, have been specifically targeted by trolls. I could be horrendously wrong, but to me it seems that those left behind are looking for some kind of easy explanation as to why and not properly examining the real factors behind each individual case.

Typically however, none of the above has stopped the tabloids from starting an instant search for social networking profiles that "romanticise" or "encourage" suicide. The Sun really ought to know better, but it seems that the hacks are on orders to take every possible opportunity to put down social networking sites other than MurdochSpace. Hence we already have this unconciousable garbage on the Scum website's front page:

TODAY we can reveal the shocking way suicide among teens is glamourised on social networking sites like Bebo.

The sad news that seven young people from Bridgend in South Wales killed themselves in an apparent “chain” of copycat suicides has led police to fear some hoped to gain "web fame".

Some of the dead - who all hanged themselves - had profile pages on Bebo, a popular site with school kids.

A quick internet search reveals one profile under the name Suicide Girls.

It carries a disturbing cartoon picture of a pink teddy bear hanging from a rope.

A line on the page says the site is, "For people who don't give a f*** and want a suicide lifestyle," adding it is "For Girls and Boys Who Love Tattoos, Piercings and Crazy Stuff."

In a discussion forum, user Amy Addiction posts, "For the people who keep asking what a suicide lifestyle is - well this is all to do with suicide girls, like the models, so yeah lifestyle like them ... glamorous, pretty etc."

Err, this wouldn't be a profile promoting Suicide Girls would it? The internet soft porn garbage site where anyone with suitably bad tattoos and piercings can become a model? Which isn't anything to do with suicide whatsoever but most certainly to do with making money out of women "outside" of the traditional model mainstream posing naked? This really is scraping the bottom of the barrel sensationalist journalism. And would you possibly believe that if you search Google for Suicide Girls that the second result is their MurdochSpace profile?

A spokesperson for charity PAPYRUS - which works to prevent suicide in young people - described the page as "extremely dangerous".

She added that the image of the teddy bear was "very disturbing".

Ah yes, Papyrus, the organisation that thinks banning any page about suicide other than their own or the Samaritans is a glorious idea. If she seriously thinks that page is "extremely dangerous" or that the teddy bear picture is "very disturbing", she needs to get out on the internet a bit more. Goatse to the left of me, 2girls1cup to the right, here we are, stuck in the middle with morons.

Elsewhere in the Scum, cross-promotion seems to be the order of the day. When Ross Kemp was married to Wade she made certain that all his television appearances were suitably puffed in the paper, but now with Wade off gallivanting with whoever, you'd of thought it would have come to an end. No such luck:

NEW series Ross Kemp In Afghanistan pulled in more than a MILLION viewers on Monday night.

The five-parter for Sky One, on Our Boys’ war with the Taliban, sees ex-EastEnder Ross, 43, train with the Royal Anglian Regiment then brave the frontline. A pal said: “It’s a brilliant start.”

One has to imagine that the key words there are "Sky" and "One".

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Friday, December 21, 2007 

Suicide is painless.

"If these [findings] were true ... I would not only resign, I would go out and commit suicide."

Such were the words of Ronnie Flanagan, now Sir, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, when Nuala O'Loan delivered her report into the police handling of the Omagh bombing. Flanagan wasn't the only one who was critical: Peter Mandelson said that she had shown a "certain lack of experience and possibly gullibility".

O'Loan's findings have now been backed up by Mr Justice Weir, who found Sean Hoey not guilty of 29 murders. Low copy number DNA evidence has also been suspended as a result.

To come back to Flanagan: are you going to get the noose or are we, you fucking cowardly liar?

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Saturday, September 22, 2007 

Scum-watch: Ignoring the PCC's guidelines on suicide.

In January last year, the Sun, Times and Evening Standard published photographs of a lawyer jumping to her death from a window ledge, resulting in condemnation not just from a friend of a woman, who complained to the PCC, but also the Samaritans, which recommended that reports covering suicide should avoid "explicit details of method and should in particular 'avoid the use of dramatic photographs or images related to suicide." While the PCC did not uphold the complaints, it did lead to a direct change in its code of practice to section 5, dealing with intrusion into grief or shock, which states that "care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used."

So much for that. While last year's photographs of the death of Katherine Ward were only printed in black and white, the Scum today prints a full-colour, sharp, detailed photograph of a "tormented guest" at the Park Lane Hilton hotel, tottering dangerously on the edge of a window ledge, the window of which has been smashed by the man. Despite the Sun blanking out his face, a large quantity of blood is clearly visible on the window and ledge, apparently from the man slashing his wrists on the broken glass. He later fell to his death.

If the paper had only printed the actual article and not the photograph it would be fair enough, as voyeuristic and intrusive as it is; with it, it takes on a whole other dimension of crudeness and insensitivity. Just to rub salt into the wound, the online editor decided to allow comments on the piece, welcoming in a number of predictable responses.

Unlike in the previous case, it seems the only the Sun has covered the man's death in as much detail, at least after I performed a quick number of searches on other newspaper websites. Only the Times seems to have reported it, and that was in a news in brief. A complaint to the PCC about the article might well be in order.

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Monday, April 02, 2007 

Facing death.

Suicide, despite the song, is most certainly not painless. When someone you know decides to take their own life, especially when it's completely unexpected, it's only natural to go through a period of soul-searching, trying to figure out if there was something you could have done or something you should have done that might of altered that person's state of mind. Even when a note is left, it can only go so far in explaining the real motives behind the person's actions. Hardly any taking of one's own life is down to one sole, simple reason: despite common perceptions, there are usually multiple reasons behind someone taking their own life, at least in the way that we most associate with someone committing suicide. If you want to get into the more sociological reasons and motives behind suicide, then Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, wrote a seminal and still highly applicable study which is worth glancing over. (Although many would blanch at how suicide bombers would under his definition probably be understood as altruistic suicides.)

It's with this in mind that we ought to approach the plea from the family of Kevin Whitrick, who hung himself on his web cam in front of a chat-room of other people, to stop the distribution of the screen grab which shows Whitrick ending his own life:

Today his brother Malcolm said: “I would appeal to anybody not to circulate these awful images.

“I cannot understand what satisfaction anyone would get out of wanting to see them, edit them or pass them around.”

Well, this at least is pretty easy to answer. It's the same satisfaction which leads to drivers on a motorway slowing down when an accident's happened on the opposite side of the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of the carnage. It's the same inquisitive nature which explains the existence of websites such as Ogrish, or the front page of True, those two seem to delight in the ghoulish rather than simply peer into it, but they also serve a purpose other than to excite the gorehounds among us: they let us see and experience death without going near it ourselves.

A lot of the comment surrounding Whitrick's death was that some of the users of the chat room had encouraged him or goaded him on, even suggesting that some of those responsible could be tried as accessories. Assuming that the image I've seen is authentic, and which I also assume has now been passed around the internet 20 times over, it should be noted that the vast majority of the users who were still there as it happened appear to have been extremely distressed and sickened once they realised that Whitrick's talk was for real.

Additionally, it's worth pointing out the very nature of the chat room which Whitrick chose to broadcast his death to, named Kel's FRIENDLY insult chat for evryone (sic). It doesn't seem that Whitrick was a regular, although some in the room knew who he was. Whether he joined in order to psyche himself up to do it, or simply because he had every intention of committing suicide and broadcasting his death to a channel not noted for being the most welcoming and understanding we will probably never know. Looking at the comments that went before they realised that he was about to kill himself, they're not out of the ordinary with what often goes on in forums or chatrooms where people who are suicidal have discussed their feelings. What has to be understood is that the very nature of the anonymity of the internet means that a lot of people are instinctively either more combative, jaded or dismissive than they would be were the same events taking place in real life. There are so many trolls, downright liars or attention whores online that a similar response may well have taken place in any room, not just an "insult" channel.

We can't know what was going through Whitrick's mind, whether he had been depressed, or whether it was a spur of the moment thing, however crude that sounds. His family suggests that he had been involved in a car crash which he hadn't fully recovered from, and that he had separated from his wife and children. There is however everything to suggest that he had at least intended to make an attempt on his life, whether he was going to broadcast it potentially to the world or not. Bringing it back to the point of how or why anyone could get satisfaction out of distributing or searching for the images of the moment of death, for many there is always going to be the simple curiosity of wondering what happens when someone dies. It's an event which few of us are going to face at least until we're considerably older, if at all before we ourselves expire.

Our bodies and our minds are normally designed to resist death at absolutely all costs. What death feels like, or what happens when we die is the other great question alongside the meaning of life itself. It's one which no one can effectively describe, and there are very few that return as it were to tell the tale. Fear of death is just as much a part of this as being designed to resist it; it's only when suitably conditioned, or depressed enough that you are no longer afraid of ceasing to be. Having suffered from severe depression, there was a time when I wasn't afraid of death: in fact more in lust with it than terrified and horrified by it. You can go to sleep wishing, praying that you don't wake up in the morning, only to be disappointed and just as angry and frustrated when you do. The very nature of severe, suicidal depression is that there are moments when you can laugh like a drain, but still be wishing that you were dead at the same time. Rather like being constantly afraid of dying, you become constantly preoccupied with dying. It's only when you've recovered from feeling that way, restored to the equilibrium of once again fearing the reaper, that you can properly understand what it is that drives some to kill themselves, as well as appreciate just how special and precious this brief, turmoiled and occasionally oppressive but undeniably exhilirating thing called life can be.

This is why I find it hard to feel too angry or bemused by those who look, read or try to experience death without going through it themselves. Better that they see it that way than actually wanting to end it all. We are meant to be repulsed by death, we are meant to be curious about it, we are always going to want to see it and see the bloody mess left of those who lose their lives, whether through tragic suicide, in a car crash, beheadings by terrorists or through natural causes while asleep. We look at it, and then we put it away again, knowing it will happen to us one day but desperately hoping that it wont. If Kevin Whitrick's decision to end his life in a very public matter means that someone else who's suicidal seeks help, or if it helps prick the conscience of some of the worst offenders when it comes to being blase about life, especially online, then it will have served some sort of purpose. As for his family's appeal, hopefully with time, once their wounds have healed, as difficult as it is, they'll understand why it is that his final moments are likely to be distributed around the internet for a long time to come.

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