The salaciousness of the press is no secret. In tabloid and gossip media, on and offline, click-bait headlines segue seamlessly into scandal, into sneers and, too often to mention, into hate-filled smears. Still, you might expect that certain subjects may be treated by editors with a morsel of propriety. This week, the coverage of Kate Spade’s untimely, sorrowful death proved otherwise.
Since the fashion designer’s death was first announced earlier this week, swathes of reports have (naturally) followed. News values dictate that deaths of celebrities, or well-known persons, will be heavily reported – it’s in our nature to care when someone we have admired or followed in life passes away. But with any kind of news, comes responsibility – and that is especially important when a person dies by suicide.
Yet coverage this week, in both the UK and the US, of Spade’s death – in print and digitally – has repeatedly flouted this responsibility. Despite best-practice guidelines being laid out, plainly, in editorial codes (first introduced into the now-defunct Press Complaints Commission in 2006, now in the IPSO code of practice) and by the hard-working charities, like the Samaritans, which fought to put them there, this week has been a showcase in how not to report death by suicide – and how the media perpetuates and exploits harm caused by mental ill-health. News outlets have consistently published dangerous amounts of detail regarding Spade’s death, with no regard for the systems in place.
Broadly, those regulations are as follows: IPSO state that “to prevent simulative acts, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media’s right to report legal proceedings”, while the Samaritans lists a fuller – very clear – guide. They include, but are not limited to, avoiding giving details of the method, being careful to say “death by suicide”, being mindful of the impact on readers. Under no circumstances should reports detail notes written by the deceased; precise locations should be avoided. Melodramatic or over-sympathetic depictions of grief should be avoided, as well as over-simplification of “triggers” that might have led to a death.
The coverage of Kate Spade’s death is not a simple error – it is a series of editorial decisions, designed to crudely capitalise on a condition that, for many, treads the line between living and dying
In Spade’s case, there’s barely a regulation that wasn’t ignored – looming headlines and lead stories online captioned outrageously unethical photographs of the scene, with sickeningly detailed methods. They speculated, unfeelingly, as to why. And they packaged it up and sold it as faux concern that a professionally remarkable woman, a mother of a 13-year-old daughter, had lost her life.
But, the cynical nature of the media aside, those lists are not pesky red tape or the work of an over-zealous “PC Brigade” – they are safety barriers. They exist to prevent harm – and they were implemented because, studies have shown, reporting of this nature can cause harm, directly and indirectly. The way we speak about suicide as a whole – even in everyday conversation – or exposing at-risk people to suicide or suicidal behaviour, has been shown to have a tangible effect or influence. And it’s nothing new. “Copycat” suicide prevention is thought to date back to as early as 1774, when, according to this study, a novel depicting a protagonist who dies by suicide was “perceived as responsible for imitative suicides in Italy, Leipzig and Copenhagen”. More specifically, some research shows that studies measuring the “presence of either an entertainment or political celebrity were 5.27 times more likely to find a copycat effect”.
So, it’s easy to conclude that the coverage of Kate Spade’s death is not a simple error or the mark of a fallible reporter. It is a series of editorial decisions, designed to crudely capitalise on a condition that, for many, treads the line between living and dying. This was a conscious – and, at its heart, deeply uncaring – decision to ignore the warnings that already take so many lives. We have all fallen prey to being unaware of guidelines or best practice – even the most tenacious writers are still learning. But what is important that we learn from mistakes when we make them. In this case, too much is at stake for us not to.
If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, please call the Samaritans anytime, for free, from any phone, on 116 123.
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