Catrin Osborne discusses the inappropriate use of clickbait in the reporting of suicide, arguing for journalistic integrity to improve

Written by Catrin Osborne
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Content Warning: This article contains themes of suicide which some readers may find distressing 

The treatment of Keith Flint’s passing by the British tabloids has been utterly inconsiderate. It showcases the perils of clickbait journalism and the need for set guidelines when reporting sensitive issues such as suicide.

Inappropriate treatment of suicide is prevalent throughout media such as in ‘13 Reasons Why.’ The scene of Hannah Baker’s death was portrayed in a highly graphic and almost instructive manner for impressionable young viewers. The show also chose a problematic narrative suggesting that protagonist Clay Jensen’s love would have been sufficient in preventing Hannah taking her own life. This evoked warnings from trained psychologists such as those at the National Association of School Psychologists who recommended safe ways for schools to discuss ‘13 Reasons Why’.

Unfortunately, the dramatisation of suicide is seeping into journalism, as evidenced in the tragic passing of Keith Flint, frontman of electronic dance act The Prodigy. Following Flint’s death on 4th March, the Sun chose the headline ‘Keith’s Agony: Prodigy star Keith Flint’s “suicide” came days after he put beloved home on market following devastating split from wife Mayumi Kai’. Likewise, The Daily Mail chose the clickbait quote ‘Nobody loved him’. Not only do these headlines jump to conclusions, they enforces the idea that an individual’s suicide is the fault of another.

Not only do these headlines jump to conclusions, they enforces the idea that an individual’s suicide is the fault of another

Around 90% of people who take their own life have some form of mental illness, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed. This statistic highlights how dangerous it is for news organisations to attempt to find reasons for their actions. Suicide is very rarely the result of one incident but instead an immensely complex phenomenon.

A 2016 survey suggests that 25% of journalists believed it was acceptable to falsify or not verify information before publishing content. This is concerning considering many journalists’ impulses to begin speculating about the ‘causes’ of celebrity suicides.

Certain newspapers did treat the death with care and consideration. For instance, The Times chose the phrase ‘took own life’ rather than terms such as ‘committed suicide’ or ‘killed himself’. The National Union of Journalists advises against these phrases as they perpetuate the stigma that suicide is a crime. The Suicide Act decriminalised the act in the United Kingdom back in 1961 so it is essential that this judgement is removed.

The Guardian’s reporting also followed guidelines by inserting a suicide helpline at the end of the article. This allows readers who may be personally affected by the content an immediate access to support. Although this takes about two minutes to add and check to the end of an online article, many tabloid articles failed to attach a helpline.

Although this takes about two minutes to add and check to the end of an online article, many tabloid articles failed to attach a helpline

It is also essential to avoid detailed reporting of the methodology, suggested by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. This is because vivid descriptions can influence some readers which could lead to ‘copycat suicides’ or ‘suicide contagion’.

Celebrity suicides are not an occurrence that should be taken lightly as they have had a ripple effect. Following Robin Williams’s death in 2014, US suicide rates raised by approximately 10%. It is impossible to determine whether this is merely a coincidence, but a disproportionate amount of deaths seemed to be through the same means as Williams’s death. This suggests that articles reporting his death may have subconsciously affected individuals.

Sadly, suicide is not a rare occurrence amongst celebrities. In the last few years, figures such as Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and Chester Bennington have taken their own lives. This may be due to the overwhelming pressure of public attention and the link between creativity and mental illness, suggested through a study for the Journal of Psychiatric Research which found a positive correlation between creative professions and mental disorders such as bipolar disorder. Thus, there are many times that news organisations must ensure they are reporting the incidents professionally.

Pitman and Stevenson (2014) conducted a content analysis of articles reporting the deaths of famous artists. They found that 38% provided detailed explanations of the death and 21% used inappropriate language. Thus, flawed reporting is not an issue unique to Keith Flint’s death.

38% provided detailed explanations of the death and 21% used inappropriate language

It is crucial that suicide is not ignored by the media, as it continues to stigmatise it by sweeping it under the rug, but it must be dealt with in a sincere manner. Tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mail should not be entirely altered because it is beneficial for the United Kingdom to display a range of journalism. However, for crucial issues such as suicide, sensationalist articles must be reined in.

Earlier this decade, the phone hacking scandal and the following Leveson Inquiry highlighted the extremity of tabloid journalism. Although some wish to erase the ‘low culture’ stereotype surrounding tabloids, it is difficult to do this considering their treatment of suicide. Although the populist newspapers have existed since The Daily Mail was launched in 1896, the rise of internet journalism fuels their provocative headlines and content.

A scroll through the internet finds clickbait titles everywhere. The most popular YouTubers exploit caps lock, exclamation marks and vague titles paired with an outrageous thumbnail. From ‘WE WERE NOT EXPECTING THIS!! (SURPRISE)’ to ‘THIS WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA!!’, David Dobrik’s videos are irresistibly tempting. Whilst this is appropriate for the light-hearted entertainment of YouTube, the gimmicky clickbait titles should be kept away from the sphere of journalism.

Gimmicky clickbait titles should be kept away from the sphere of journalism

The move from newspapers to internet journalism is best seen through The Mail Online. Whilst the Daily Mail has always sensationalised content, the internet form bombards the viewer with gifs, certain words in capital letters, adverts, and the endless horror that is the ‘sidebar of shame’. With an abundance of options, each article feels in competition with each other to be as provocative as possible. This led to the dramatization of Keith Flint’s death.

Clickbait journalism is questionable for most content but completely inappropriate for the topic of suicide. As reading about theses issues can be triggering for some individuals, the United Kingdom needs one single set of guidelines for reporting suicide. There exists helpful advice from many helpful organisations’ guidelines mentioned earlier as well as Samaritans and MediaWise Trust.

However, as there are a range, tabloids can pick and choose what information to follow. For instance, Article 19, a British organisation campaigning for freedom of speech, only vaguely mentions handling the phenomenon with ‘discretion and care’. If one compulsory collection of rules is implemented, the reporting would not be as reckless.

When dealing with an issue as complex and important as suicide, tabloids must avoid reckless clickbait journalism and consider the severity of the situation.

If you or someone you know may have been affected by the content of this article, please contact Samaritans at 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

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