We Need to Talk About Suicide Reporting

Culture

How do we find the optimal balance between our right to information, and the risks inherent in broad dissemination of sensitive information? Around 24 hours have passed since 27-year-old Jonghyun, a member of the popular K-pop group SHINee, took his own life. It’s already a huge story, both within South Korea and internationally. It’s not hard to find reports describing the circumstances and methods of his death; many have published his entire suicide letter; headlines list the glittering stars visiting his wake.

It feels all too familiar. I’ve grown up with celebrity suicides: Every couple of years, someone major dies — Lee Eun-joo, Choi Jin-sil, Robin Williams — and for the next few days, or weeks, depending on the scale of fame, the headlines become saturated with the word ‘death’ or ‘suicide’ (apologies in advance that this article commits the same sin). It’s not just celebrity suicides: I read frequently how South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

At what point do these suicide stories become too much — disrespectful, counterproductive to discussion, and even potentially dangerous for some audiences?

The most memorable case was probably that of Choi Jin-sil, who died in 2008. It’s probably South Korea’s biggest celebrity suicide story up to date — not counting Jonghyun’s — not just because she was such a famous actress, but also because her personal life was messy enough that her life had long been used as juicy tabloid fodder. She had had a tumultuous divorce with an A-list baseball player, suffered depression, and was falsely accused of being a loan shark.

After she died, her suicide letter, funerary portrait, and images of her mourning family and friends were all streamed for indiscriminate public consumption. Her death became a recurring search word, never far from public consciousness, especially because her brother and former husband also killed themselves in the following years.

“Since the morning, mass confusion was created by police, reporters and residents all surrounding the top-star Choi Jin-sil’s home in Jamwon-dong, Seocho district, Seoul, where she died,” an outlet reported less than 24 hours after Choi’s death, describing the ambulance carrying her corpse, and what the children were doing at the time of her death.

As thick as this may sound, working day in and out as a journalist, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend how much weight and distance my words can carry. Writing one article that details someone else’s suicide seems harmless, not particularly groundbreaking in the grand scheme of the universe. Writing vividly and descriptively about a famous K-pop star’s death — when most others seem to be doing it too — seems like the reasonable thing to do, even savvy, if you want to ride the tsunami of related hashtags and catch the reader’s attention.

As a reader, I’ve become pretty jaded. After the initial shock of, “Oh, someone died!” and “Oh, but he/she was so young/famous/talented/rich,” my usual response to a suicide news is to move on with my daily task. I don’t take much heed of the funeral footages, the emotional portrayals of weeping family, friends and fans. The word ‘suicide’ in headlines doesn’t particularly trigger anything threatening within me, because I currently have no suicidal impulses.

My position as an attention-hungry reporter and a jaded reader is dangerously limiting. I’m limited from understanding the risks inherent in writing about suicide. I, too, can easily succumb to starting this article with a juicy paragraph reconstructing Jonghyun’s last moments, appealing to reader sentimentality. I can translate into English the entirety of his will, which was picked up by reporters after a friend Instagrammed it with the consent of his family.

But this time, I won’t. I’m going to try something different: to cultivate my sensitivity toward others that aren’t like me, and exercise caution where it’s necessary. That’s my job.

This isn’t a new awakening: Debates have been ongoing for decades about how journalists should report appropriately on suicides — especially those of celebrities, because the potential risks of reporting them are presumed to be greater.

Celebrity deaths seem to resonate more with the audience than those of other public figures, including politicians. Especially at risk are audiences with suicidal impulses. According to various media reports, after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, the suicide rate in the U.S. rose by 12 percent the following month. After Choi Jin-sil’s death in 2008, there were over 1,000 more suicides nationwide for the next two months, compared to the typical average within the same duration.

“It’s because of the duality of the movie star,” said Steven Stack, a prominent suicide researcher, in an interview with EBS, a South Korean public broadcaster. “You can identify with them, because they often play the role of the ordinary person; but at the same time, they’re not like you. They’re rich and famous. If they commit suicide, some people might think, ‘If this rich and attractive person commits suicide, if life isn’t worth living for them, what about little old me?’”

Stack argues the journalist carries a responsibility to be sensitive of the potential threats. “The greater the amount of [suicide] coverage, the greater the number of days, the more likely you’re going to get imitation effects,” he said.

The dangers of excessive suicide reporting have been well-documented. One of the most notable cases is Vienna in the late 1980s. Suicide rates on the subway were rising at an alarming rate. After hitting the peak in 1987, the rate declined by 75 percent in the same year, and remained at that level for the next five years. This decline coincided with the emergence of media guidelines on suicide, introduced by the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention.

“For a long time, journalists didn’t believe that they could exert that sort of influence on suicides,” Gernot Sonneck, a founding member of the Wiener Werkstaette for Suicide Research in Austria, told EBS. “Our studies showed they did. Journalists finally started realizing that what they write and say aren’t nothing — they make an impact,” said Sonneck, who co-authored the “Austrian Guidelines for Suicide Reporting.”

South Korea has guidelines, too. The Journalists Association of Korea released a set of guidelines in 2004 on the ethics of suicide reporting. In many ways the South Korean guidelines echo the Austrian ones, as well as the WHO manual for media professionals: Don’t romanticize the suicide. Don’t describe the specifics of the location and method of death. Avoid putting the word ‘suicide’ in headlines. Avoid featuring a celebrity’s suicide as the main story of the day.

“It’s shameful to think about the current status of Korean media, which reports on a deceased celebrity’s wake like it would on an Oscar ceremony,” wrote Media Us, a left-leaning outlet that critiques media practices in South Korea, in 2013.

Four years later, I’d cut the “Korean media” a bit more slack. Most major publications — including those of differing political orientations — haven’t featured Jonghyun’s story prominently on their websites. Different outlets are critiquing inappropriate media reports sensationalizing the death. Since news of Jonghyun first broke, over 6,000 signatures have been gathered for an online petition on the presidential website, demanding legal punishments on irresponsible reporting — a petition that I have, again, found out through media reports.

But there are still plenty of media reports that don’t abide by the guidelines of suicide reporting. Every sentence I type in this article, I’m hesitant, wondering if another rumination on suicide can have an unintended, detrimental effect on the reader.

“Depression is a scary thing,” tweeted an anonymous South Korean user, whose Twitter handle is ‘You Did Well Jonghyun I Love You_Middle of Winter.’ “At work, I thought about Jonghyun’s letter, and I wanted to kill myself. After lunch, I read an article that other SHINee members were presiding over his wake, and I thought about following him. I shook myself awake, but I still wanted to die.”

“Suicide reporting is hard,” Okada Chikara, an editor at the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest dailies, told EBS in a documentary on the dangers of suicide reporting. “Some people want to commit suicide when they simply see the word ‘suicide.’ Some feel the impulse when they see wills and photographs. Unlike other stories we report on, suicide stories can produce reactions that we couldn’t possibly have imagined.”

Asahi Shimbun is notable for developing its own guidelines on suicide reporting, and fostering continuous discussions within its team. Chikara said this wasn’t an easy process. “We don’t want to restrict our reporting. Frankly, the WHO guidelines on suicide reporting is also a form of restriction. You can’t do this, you can’t do that…. It’s not easy for journalists to accept this. But we talked about every section of the WHO guidelines,” he said, eventually creating a manual suited for Asahi reporters.

Guidelines themselves don’t enforce change. Journalists and readers need to cultivate a consensus on how much information is necessary for the public, and how much must be withheld, in order to be respectful to the deceased and the living. This is a culture of sensitivity that needs to be practiced. That’s the least that journalists can do. That’s our job.

 

Editor’s note: For those of you living in South Korea, please call one of the following numbers if you are thinking about suicide: 1577-0199 or 129 (hotlines for suicide prevention).

Read our tribute to Kim Jonghyun, more popularly known as simply Jonghyun: 

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Cover image: When to speak, when to stay silent? The perennial dilemma. (Source: Pxhere, CC0 Public Domain)

Haeryun Kang is Korea Exposé's managing editor.