Although Roumeliotis and her team felt strongly that this story was in the public interest, they could not ignore a long-standing taboo on covering topics related to suicide.
Cliff Lonsdale, president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, says this taboo comes from a long-held theory known as suicide contagion. According to contagion theorists, stories about suicides have the potential to trigger other suicidal people to follow suit. This phenomenon, also referred to as copycats, has led many news outlets to minimize their report of suicides.
Dr. Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto, studies suicide prevention and media depictions of suicide. He says contagion can happen consciously or subconsciously. For some, a conscious decision is made to follow someone else’s path. Sinyor mentioned examples of notes in which people have mentioned previous suicides in explaining their a decision to follow suit. For others, Sinyor says, the influence of a media story may be more subconscious.
As an example, Sinyor cites the coverage that followed the death of comedian Robin Williams in 2014. He says that coverage was associated with almost 2,000 additional suicides in the United States, and hundreds more in Canada and Australia in the following months.
Watch Dr. Mark Sinyor discuss issues with the coverage of Robin Williams’ death.
Some standards around reporting suicide have changed over time. For example, there has been a widespread shift away from saying “committed suicide,” which implies sin and value judgment, to more neutral terms like “died by suicide.”1Catalyst Promotion Life in Headlines and Households,” Mental Health Commission, 2021. Online.https://mentalhealthcommission.ca/catalyst-january-2021-promoting-life-in-headlines-and-households/
But a more general taboo on reporting suicide has persisted. In 2011, Liam Casey wrote about suicide coverage for the Review of Journalism. He wrote that the taboo against reporting on suicide unnecessarily prevented journalists from writing about an important topic. “The industry can no longer justify failing to cover a tragedy that will affect so many people, in one way or another, at some time in their lives,”2Casey, Liam. “Suicide Notes,” Ryerson Review of Journalism, 22 Dec 2010. Print. https://rrj.ca/suicide-notes/ Casey wrote.
The taboo, however, persisted. “Once we knew that suicide was involved in a story, we just dropped it,” Lonsdale recalls. “So suicide and its causes seldom came under a proper journalistic spotlight, and we all somehow pretended that it would magically go away.”
It didn’t go away. In 2019, when Roumeliotis began to pursue this story, over 4,000 Canadians died by suicide 3“Suicide Stats for Canda, provinces and territories,” Centre for Suicide Prevention https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resource/suicide-stats-canada-provinces/
|Catalyst Promotion Life in Headlines and Households,” Mental Health Commission, 2021. Online.https://mentalhealthcommission.ca/catalyst-january-2021-promoting-life-in-headlines-and-households/
|Casey, Liam. “Suicide Notes,” Ryerson Review of Journalism, 22 Dec 2010. Print. https://rrj.ca/suicide-notes/
|“Suicide Stats for Canda, provinces and territories,” Centre for Suicide Prevention https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resource/suicide-stats-canada-provinces/