The Malta Independent 8 December 2021, Wednesday

TMID Editorial: Celebrity suicides - When all the rules fly out the window

Saturday, 29 July 2017, 12:23 Last update: about 5 years ago

The news that Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington passed away last week brought grief to many fans worldwide, but what was equally tragic was the way in which his death was reported in many sections of the media.

Bennington, 41, died by suicide, having lived most of his life battling depression, which came about as a result of the abuse he endured as a child, alcoholism and drug abuse. He often spoke about these subjects in order to raise awareness about these all too common problems and always conveyed the message that personal demons can be fought and defeated. In the end (no pun intended, one of Linkin Park's most famous songs is titled as such) it all proved to be too much for him.

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The subject of suicide is still considered to be somewhat of a taboo by the media, which shies away from the subject. In Malta, most news houses have a policy not to report suicides because of the general belief that reporting suicide can add to the anguish of bereaved families and because it could possibly lead to more suicide. There were cases in the past where sensationalist reporting of suicides in the (foreign) media actually led to a number of copycat cases.

There are cases were reporting suicide is justified, such as when it causes widespread disruption to transportation systems. But even then, the general rule is to never give details of the method employed - so as to not give ideas to others.

In the case of Bennington, sections of the mainstream media, particularly in the US, forgot all the rules and immediately began publishing how and where he had done it and speculated as to the why. When the victim has celebrity status, it seems, the rules go out the window, even though these are designed to protect others from harming themselves. In the rush to be the first with the news, or to have the best and most clickable headlines, many media houses did a huge disservice to many who might be going through a very rough patch and needed someone to guide them back on the right path, rather than give them bad ideas.

We have seen this happen countless times over the years and this (mal)practice goes back several years. The death of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, with all the gory reporting that followed, comes to mind.

It is often said that the media can do as much harm as it can do good, and this was certainly one of those cases. But it is not only the media that is at fault here. Social media and all those who use it can do as much damage. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter, in fact, have a much wider reach among youngsters than news websites.

So we all need to be more mindful of these things and realise that the rules should not be forgotten just because the victim is a superstar, or because it generates more online traffic. Granted, the media cannot simply ignore the death of a celebrity, but it do so as respectfully as possible and remember that, at the end of the day that celebrity is still a human being with a family, and the people reading that news report could be going through difficult situations themselves. Experts tell us, in fact, that celebrity suicides actually have a higher risk of encouraging imitational behaviour. It's all about respect and dignity.

If you need help there are a number of helplines in place where one can call, including Agenzija Appogg's 179 support line, the Crisis Resolution Malta campaign on 9933 9966, the online chat service for youth called Kellimni, and the Richmond Foundation's own Casual Contact System - reachable on 2144 0324. 
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