Reporting on suicide
Two of our young, attentive writers sounded the alert in the Rappler newsroom in the afternoon of Friday, March 15. News about a freshman at the University of the Philippines in Manila who took her life was quickly spreading on social media.
No less than the Manila Collegian, the university’s student publication, had published a story on its Facebook page.
A quick question ran through our heads: Do we even write about it? Is it correct to write about it? There was momentary pause. What are the guidelines for covering suicides, one of our reporters asked in an email thread that suddenly came to life.
Some media organizations, after all, have a policy against reporting on suicides. The reason is simple: copycat suicides. The thinking goes that by reporting and amplifying stories about suicide, the media unwittingly become a factor in the emulation of this tragic act. As psychiatric epidemiologist Madelyn Gould of Columbia University pointed out, among adolescents, “social modelling,” or behavior imitating that of other teens, could be triggered.
Do we want to encourage more of this behavior by reporting about it?
Next question that came to mind: what pushed the student to kill herself, what were her motivations?
Early indications pointed to failure to pay tuition on time. No less than a faculty member who had spoken to the student revealed how distressed she was days before she killed herself. In touch with the student through text messaging, the teacher revealed the mental state of the student who told her she could no longer handle her financial problems.
There was a story
“Since February, hindi na siya pumapasok. Lagi siyang nagte-text sa ’kin na hindi niya kinakaya ang problema,” professor Andrea Bautista Martinez of UP Manila’s Department of Behavioral Sciences was quoted as saying. (Since February, she has not been going to school. She was always texting me, telling me she couldn’t handle the problem.)
While material abounds about how complex suicide is, and how difficult it is to attribute it to just one factor, there were strong indications the emotional burden of having to stop schooling was too much to bear.
As other details became available, it became clear that this story was unlike the more common billboard suicide attempts that tabloids and television networks love covering. It mirrored a systemic problem in a premier state university and was not just about a mentally disturbed person out to get attention. We could not pretend there was no story.
Neither could we pretend that we could write about the issue or the problem that apparently prompted the suicide without making direct reference to the incident itself. Talk about humanizing a story or concretizing an otherwise abstract call for “education for all,” this was it.
Beyond the human face and the drama that could be exploited by others, what stood out more was an issue that unfortunately was one of the factors that pushed the student to take her life.
It was perfectly legitimate to pursue discussions and debate about state university policies that make it difficult for poor students to pursue a college education. Who would have known about UP Manila’s forced leave of absence policy outside of UP circles, were it not for the tragic incident? (Read: UP lifts 'no late payment' policy)
It made no sense to apply a sweeping ethical prescription about shunning suicide stories. What became apparent was the need to proceed with utmost caution. Resources were shared on the email thread, as were doubts and questions which both challenged and reinforced a decision to pursue the story.
Cognizant of the dangers that romanticizing or even glamorizing suicide could bring, however, parameters were spelled out early on – no name for the student, no details about the manner of death, no photos, no play up, no use even of the S word, and no exploitation by politicians and other groups with an agenda. We needed to be reminded about them as well.
What mattered at that point was not whether we would write about the story. But how.
It was imperative that a clear explanation of the UP financial aid system be made and how state scholars from poor families are under pressure to meet deadlines for tuition payments.
What is it about state university policies that need review and revision to make them consistent with the mandate to make education accessible to all? What did UP Manila have to say? And what do experts say as well? Clearly, the issue was bigger than a suicide.
In the age of social media, information is fast, ubiquitous, and furious. Feedback is almost always instantaneous and it helps keep journalists on their toes. It has made the job more challenging and even eliminates the need for fact-checkers, proofreaders, and an ombudsman, we sometimes joke.
The speed with which information is shared also adds to the pressure of releasing more details, more than what is sometimes necessary. In many ways, social media has also made the job of journalists harder and more complicated compared to what it was a decade ago.
Some critics pointed out the headline of our first story was an over-simplification, a direct cause-and-effect that passed unfair judgment on the university alone. We went with “Student kills self over unpaid tuition.” In retrospect, perhaps a question mark at the end could have made a difference. But prior and subsequent information supported the belief that even if there may have been other contributing reasons, the emotional burden of having to stop schooling was a major triggering factor.
Days later, we also had to adjust an earlier decision not to use the student's real name. The Manila Collegian named her early on as did other media, but we stuck to our own "Lorena," thinking that it was consistent with the choice to pursue the story because of an issue more than the personal circumstances of the suicide victim. But when no less than UP officials called for a press conference and named her, it was a clear signal to us we should start using Kristel Tejada. It was pointless to continue using a pseudonym.
Newsrooms are a daily laboratory of learning, we often say.
We share knowledge, we ask questions, we commit mistakes, own up to them and realize that doing so can be an act of courage in itself. We make adjustments and always strive to do better, keeping in mind valuable lessons that actual experience teaches us. Ethical guidelines exist and we apply them, fully aware they are no guarantee that difficult choices need not be made.
In the end, journalists are always held up against a standard and are accountable for decisions they make and actions they take. In covering suicides, we go back to the basics: we strive to protect privacy, minimize harm to parties involved, make an effort not to sensationalize or over-simplify. We must be on the lookout for public interest issues, and constantly challenge each other’s assumptions and decisions. This way, we help keep each other on track. – Rappler.com
Editor’s Note: The Natasha Goulbourn Foundation has a depression and suicide prevention hotline to help those secretly suffering from depression. The numbers to call are 804-4673 and 0917-558-4673. Globe and TM subscribers may call the toll-free number 2919. More information is available on its website. It’s also on Twitter @NGFoundationPH and Facebook.
Chay F. Hofileña obtained her graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and teaches Media Ethics at the Konrad Adenauer Center for Journalism at the Ateneo. She wrote a book on media corruption, News for Sale: The Corruption and Commercialization of the Philippine Media published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. She is Rappler's citizen journalism director.
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