Following the suicide of Robin Williams, the front pages of The Daily Mirror, The Sun and the Daily Mail each had something in common: Big, sensationalistic headlines (“Robin: his last hours”; “Tortured”; “He was facing bankruptcy”) over a full-size headshot of the actor. Other than revealing unnecessary details, we know that reporting on suicides in this way is potentially harmful. After glorifying and detailed reports on Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, for example, there was a huge increase in suicides in the period that followed. In response to evidence indicating that such reporting can lead to ‘copycat’ deaths, most Western countries have drawn up responsible reporting into a media code (avoiding simplifying, glorifying or romanticizing the suicide).
Remarkably enough, while adhered to in most cases – the case of Robin Williams aside – media tend to blatantly ignore this code when it comes to homicide followed by the suicide of the perpetrator. A homicide-suicide typically involves a person who kills family members before taking their own life, or when an individual murders a number of people in a public place, such as a school, before taking their own life. In such cases, newspapers do not hesitate to publish full-fledged photos accompanied by terms such as ‘epidemic’ and ‘dramatic’. It is inevitable that such shocking events are reported and it is arguably in the public interest to examine the circumstances surrounding these types of deaths. However, we gain nothing by gruesomely detailed, dramatic descriptions of the event other than quenching our thirst for sensation.
Similar to suicide reporting guidelines, we should not report on homicide-suicide in an over-simplified manner, suggesting that there was one cause or perceived trigger, such a loss of a job, relationship breakdown or depression. Other than neglecting the complex reality of homicide-suicide, it may give others the impression that homicide-suicide was chosen as a solution to end a recognizable problem. Vulnerable individuals may ‘over-identify’ with the perpetrator or these problems. For example, a newspaper article that combines references to life circumstances, say a debt problem or job loss, and detailed descriptions of a homicide-suicide method in the same article, could put at greater risk for people who are vulnerable as a result of financial stress. Likewise, when two events take place in a short time span, this does not constitute an ‘epidemic’, implying a connection where there may be none.
Rather than capitalizing on the tragedy of these events, let’s devote our energy to prevention. And, paradoxically enough, the media could play a key role in this, by creating awareness of mental health problems and suicidal ideation. Media can use their story to inform their readers about the causes underlying these acts, its warning signs, trends in rates and recent prevention advances. It can save lives.