As we all know by now, the designer Kate Spade died this week at age 55 by suicide. We know this because she was a prominent businesswoman and cultural figure, and the news media has dutifully reported on her death, as it should.
Unfortunately, we also know much more than that, including minute details of how she ended her life — not only the method she used, but even the color of the object employed, which has been reported in countless articles and news accounts.
As both a journalist and a suicide-attempt survivor, I have been disappointed by the sensational nature of the coverage of Spade’s death.
In 1843, the British epidemiologist William Farr, in the Phrenological Journal and Magazine of Moral Science, wrote, “No fact is better established in science than that suicide … is often committed from imitation.”
Since then, countless academic studies have borne out this theory of contagion.
In addition, public health entities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have published guidelines for media professionals in covering suicide, and in 2015, more than 29 public health, suicide prevention and journalism entities issued Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, which can be found at the project website, reportingonsuicide.org. There are many other resources available as well, and they’re easy to find and access.
The WHO’s don’ts include: Don’t place stories about suicide prominently, and do not unduly repeat such stories; don’t use language that sensationalizes or normalizes suicide; don’t explicitly describe the method used; don’t provide details about the site/location; don’t use sensational headlines; and don’t use photographs, video footage, or social media links. Every one of these don’ts is regularly considered a do by media outlets, even those that aren’t TMZ.
In the case of Spade, the inappropriate, damaging coverage is especially ironic as it appears that she herself was negatively impacted by such reporting. In an email to the Kansas City Star, Reta Saffo, Spade’s older sister, said Spade was deeply affected by coverage of Robin Williams’ death by suicide in 2014: “She kept watching it and watching it over and over. I think the plan was already in motion even as far back as then,” Saffo said.
The coverage of Williams’ death was nonstop and sensational, and it broke every one of the rules, including repetitive mention of exactly how Williams ended his life. I personally know many people who were destabilized and triggered by that coverage, and who still have a hard time with it today. Spade, too, was obviously upset by it. In the end, she employed the same method Williams did.
In May, Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote for Vox about the “life-or-death consequences” of how the media cover celebrity suicides. She was responding in particular to the awful coverage of the April death of 28-year-old Tim Bergling, better known under his DJ name Avicii. Yesterday, Vox updated the story with an intro that noted: “The coverage of [Spade’s] death raises some of the same issues.”
Will they add another update after the irresponsible coverage of the next celebrity suicide?
Media executives have to start taking this issue seriously and train reporters accordingly. I am aware of the fact that writers can’t know what they do not know: Several years ago, when I was a reporter at Philadelphia Magazine, I wrote a story about a kid who died by suicide and I violated several of the guidelines myself, which I only learned after being contacted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. At that point, I’d been on the mental health beat for probably 15 years.
I realize that the guidelines aren’t necessarily common knowledge. But newsrooms are constantly making adjustments to language and terminology; guidelines for coverage of, say, the LGBTQ community or people dealing with addiction are often referred to in the course of preparing a story for publication. Why can’t the same effort be expended on public health reporting? If playing down the more sensational aspects of a suicide may lead to fewer clicks, it may also lead to fewer deaths.
The media must decide: Which matters more?
Liz Spikol is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. email@example.com
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please seek help through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.