Friday, September 20, 2013

Let's Give Paris Jackson Some Privacy and Revisit Safe Reporting on Suicide (and Attempts)!

I always cringe when the announcement of a celebrity suicide or suicide attempt comes through my news feed.  First and foremost, because it is incredibly sad to learn that anyone is suffering enough to consider suicide.  Second, because the news coverage that will follow is often invasive and downright dangerous to the rest of us.  The way the media covers suicide can influence behavior negatively by contributing to contagion or positively by encouraging help-seeking.  I have often written on this topic for Pop Health and even as an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer.  However, the message is so important that it bears repeating.

According to multiple news outlets, Paris Jackson (daughter of the late Michael Jackson) was hospitalized this morning after a suicide attempt.  The story was apparently confirmed by her biological mother Debbie Rowe- Paris was hospitalized with cuts on her wrists.  Now I was already concerned that a 15 year old girl was having these personal, medical details released to the media.  Then I saw the coverage on TMZ and just got plain angry.  I won't link to it here because (1) the irresponsible coverage could be dangerous to readers and (2) I refuse to drive traffic to their site.

As a journalist (or public health communication professional) working on this story, your first stop should be Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.  Although the guide focuses on suicide, the recommendations are highly relevant for attempt stories as well. The recommendations were developed by leading experts in suicide prevention and in collaboration with several international suicide prevention and public health organizations, schools of journalism, media organizations and key journalists as well as Internet safety experts. The recommendations are based on more than 50 international studies on suicide contagion.  Based on their recommendations, here are some of my concerns with the Paris Jackson articles:

  • Sensational headlines:  E.g., "Paris Jackson Attempts Suicide, Rushed to Hospital" (US Weekly)
  • Oversimplification:  E.g., "A source close to the family tells Entertainment Tonight exclusively that the reason Paris attempted suicide is because she wasn't allowed to go to a Marilyn Manson concert".
  • Including photos of the method of death (or in this case attempt):  TMZ has published multiple pictures of Paris (some undated) that zoom in on her wrists to identify possible cutting scars.  This is bad for several reasons:
    • 1- Without any confirmation, the writers are suggesting that Paris has a history of suicide attempts.
    • 2- The writers are suggesting that anyone who cuts their body is attempting suicide when in fact, some self harm behavior is non-suicidal.  A good resource for definitions of various forms of self-directed violence comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  There can be self harm behavior (like cutting) without the presence (whether implicit or explicit) of suicidal intent.  

A lot can be learned in public health by monitoring this media coverage, highlighting mistakes, and reinforcing safe messaging.  The Paris Jackson articles should:
  • Inform without sensationalizing
  • Provide valuable education to readers (including suicide warning signs, ways to help a friend/family member, and resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
  • Seek advice from suicide prevention experts before reporting on data or making assumptions about Paris' intentions or medical history
  • Be hopeful! Emphasize that mental illness is treatable and many local and national resources exist

1.  Associated Press (New!) Stylebook Entry on Mental Illness
2.  Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide
3.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

What Do You Think?
  • What was your reaction to the media coverage of Paris Jackson's suicide attempt?
  • What other resources would you add to my list to support safe media reporting on suicide and attempts?

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