Yesterday the world was coming to terms with the shock news that Robin Williams was dead. Today we must come to terms with the many unwelcome reminders that no matter how fondly people are regarded and no matter how much their family ask for privacy there are those in the media who will always trample memories and the feelings of friends, family and fans in pursuit of a headline.
Today’s papers have been fiercely criticised for publishing far too much information about the method by which Williams may have taken his own life and far too much speculation about why, ignoring advice issued to media on Tuesday by the The Samaritans.
If you’ve seen the headlines from the likes of the Metro, The Sun, the Daily Star and Daily Mail then you know this already. If you haven’t, don’t go looking because it is none of our business how Robin Williams died.
Of course, many of us are sad that Williams is dead but just because we loved his films and his brilliant performances that doesn’t give us or anybody acting on our behalf the right to invade the privacy and the grief of those who genuinely knew him.
Beyond the crass invasion of privacy, so perfectly illustrated by ABC News reporting the family’s wishes that they be left alone beneath a link to a live stream of aerial footage being filmed above the family home, there is the question of responsibility.
Make no mistake, many media outlets are ignoring every obligation put upon them to report suicide responsibly.
For what it's worth, The Press Complaints Commission makes clear:
“When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used."
The Press Complaints Commission has always been embarrassingly inadequate and it’s no surprise that the papers ignore their own toothless regulator. But the media are also ignoring clear guidelines from The Samaritans about how to report suicide.
The Samaritans states "details of suicide methods have been shown to prompt vulnerable individuals to imitate suicidal behaviour". As such they recommend media outlets "avoid giving too much detail" and "avoid any mention of the method in headlines".
Suffice to say that advice was lost on many media outlets.
Likewise, the The Samaritans warning against "over-simplification of the causes or perceived 'triggers' for a suicide" could not stop the Daily Mail from speculating about what triggered Williams' suicide and seeking out a single, simple trigger.
The Samaritans plainly states:
"Vulnerable individuals may identify with a person who has died, or with the circumstances in which a person took their own life. For example, combining references to life circumstances, say a debt problem... and descriptions of an easy-to-copy suicide method in the same report, could put at greater risk people who are vulnerable as a result of financial stress."
The Daily Mail ignored every word of that advice.
None of this is new of course. The media are apparently unable to help themselves when it comes to such stories but their approach has clearly still shocked many readers and it has certainly drawn an angry reaction online.
.@MetroUK You should be ashamed of yourselves for tomorrow's cover. Unforgivable.— Bill Thompson (@billt) August 12, 2014
Samaritans circulated an email via PCC to all papers today. The papers were warned, and ran those front pages anyway. I don't have words.— James Ball (@jamesrbuk) August 12, 2014
Looks like neither @MetroUK nor Daily Mail have bothered paying attention to guidelines on reporting suicide. Shameful front pages tomorrow.— Cath Elliott (@CathElliott) August 12, 2014
The Daily Mail and Metro front covers are fucking wretched.— Nicole (@NickiDupre) August 12, 2014
Pretty much everyone on Twitter has read the Samaritans guidelines for reporting suicide. Only the press has somehow missed them.— Chris (@BertrandRustles) August 12, 2014