The Writer's Responsibility When Writing About Suicide

Source:  bangordailynews.com
It's a given that what people know about suicide or any subject comes from what they read, and it doesn't matter one iota whether what they read is journalistic reporting, non-fiction or fiction.  The same applies to what a person sees on television or in a movie.  As far as the viewer or reader is concerned, as writers we are presenting "fact" whether we actually are or not.  

As writers, we have an ethical responsibility to get it right, and to not propagate stereotypes.  Okay, getting it right takes more effort than just slapping a story onto paper.  You actually have to do some research and even think.  That is more effort.  But don't your readers deserve your best effort?  And the truth?

This research out of Austria points out that at least in the Austrian press, what is reported are stereotypes about suicidal individuals, not reality.  Below is a report on a study about how reporting in Austrian newspaper distorts the reality of suicide.  Does taking the easy route help anyone?  I argue that it doesn't.  Perpetuating a stereotype is the lazy, unethical, way out.

Here's the report:


Suicide and gender roles:
Reporting distorts reality
Men angry and rejected, women sociable and mentally ill -- a current study demonstrates that these gender stereotypes prevail when daily newspapers report on suicide. This has far-reaching consequences, the investigators say.

When it comes to suicidal behavior, there is a clear gender paradox: the ratio of men to women who actually commit suicide is three to one, but with attempted suicides it is exactly the opposite -- three women for every one man. A study by the MedUni Vienna which has recently been published in the highly journal Sex Roles demonstrates that the cultural script that bears partial responsibility for this is also found in the reports by Austrian daily newspapers.

Read this paragraph twice
These gender-specific differences are made visible by the formulation, the nature and frequency of reported suicide motives. Articles about suicide in women focus more on sociability, relationships with other people and motives that are anchored in the family environment. Psychiatric illnesses are also cited as a motive and are described in a stigmatizing manner. More complex language and cautious expressions are also the hallmarks of articles about female suicide. In contrast, the articles about male suicide use more words that relate to anger and rejection. This conservative role image is reinforced by this style of reporting.
Suggested reading

Suicide risk could be reduced by changing the style of reporting
But that's not all. A very specific problem arises from this, which study leader Brigitte Eisenwort from the University Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at the MedUni Vienna explains as follows: "Mental illnesses are described in a stigmatizing way and are also generally under-represented, since they are barely mentioned at all in reports about suicidal men. This means that one key approach to prevention fails to register in the minds of Austrian readers. Psychiatric illnesses can be treated. The suicide risk can be reduced as a result." Journalists should take care to present as correct a view of suicidal tendencies and not rely on stereotypical portrayals of men and women.

Spotlight on eleven Austrian daily newspapers
507 articles containing the word 'suicide' from eleven Austrian daily newspapers from between 1997 and 2005 were investigated. The study is one of the first investigations to look comprehensively at the subject of gender-specific patterns in the reporting of suicide. This ground-breaking study was set up under the leadership of Brigitte Eisenwort, together with Thomas Niederkrotenthaler and Benedikt Till (both from the Institute for Social Medicine at the MedUni Vienna's Centre for Public Health), as well as Barbara Hinterbuchinger from the University Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the MedUni Vienna.

Related posts:
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Story Source:  Materials provided by Medical University of Vienna. Brigitte Eisenwort, Benedikt Till, Barbara Hinterbuchinger, Thomas Niederkrotenthaler. Sociable, Mentally Disturbed Women and Angry, Rejected Men: Cultural Scripts for the Suicidal Behavior of Women and Men in the Austrian Print Media. Sex Roles, 2014.

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