Suicide reporting, responsibility and Twitter


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Wow, I’m going to write something serious on my blog for once.  About the media.  WOAH.

This week in Jakarta there have been three cases of suicide in shopping malls.  Read here and here.

One of the Jakarta Globe reporters wrote an opinion piece about the dangers of Twitter journalism, which you can read here.  It sparked a bit of debate on the Globe site and on the Unspun blog.

It’s raised a few questions about citizen journalism, especially on Twitter.

Basically, on Twitter, users were circulating extremely graphic images of the scenes of the suicides, including the bodies of the victims.  I’m going to refrain from describing the images or posting links to them on this blog, because I believe in the press guidelines (such as these from the Australian Press Council) that I adhered to as a journalist in Australia.  The images were widespread on Monday after the first suicide at Grand Indonesia mall and it wasn’t only the “Twitter citizen journalists” that were guilty of spreading them — some Indonesian news organizations ran the images on their websites.

A little under four hours later, a man committed suicide from the same floor at another luxury Jakarta shopping mall, Senayan City.  To me, and this is my opinion, it’s a case of a copy-cat suicide, with the first widely published event showing a successful model of suicide for the second victim.  This is something we were warned about in our media ethics classes at J-School.

We will never know exactly why or how or if. We will never know if the young man saw the graphic images on Twitter or on a news website, or even read about the suicide in a relatively tame and ethical newspaper article on the event, saw it on TV, heard it on radio or even if these two extremely similar suicides were connected in any way at all or not.

But as someone who works in the media, I am well aware of the gravity and power of information.  As a media producer, what if they’d found your tweet, webpage, email, whatever, open on the second victims cellphone?  You can’t wrap the world in cotton wool and people are always going to take the information you produce or spread and process it in their own way.  But there are certain parameters to try and reduce potential harm and, nowadays, we are all content producers and aggregators on Twitter, Facebook and email (if you’re old skool).  So do we all need a code of ethics?

Obviously, morals, ethics, boundaries are all extremely debatable and depend on circumstances.  When a big story hits and newsrooms go nuts, sometimes they step over the boundaries.  I completely understand why people so madly circulated those photos of the suicides, especially in our reality TV real time world.  There’s so many reasons why people forwarded those images.

But why couldn’t the images at least have been forwarded with warnings about their graphic content?  Or with a link to a website where people can get professional information about depression and suicidal feelings?  Sure, there’s no rules saying that people need to do this and a lot of people wouldn’t have read information about how descriptions and images of suicide can act as a trigger to people suffering from depression.  But lots of great things have evolved out of Twitter.  Trends zap around the world in matters of moments and the community has essentially crafted the way the site is used today through global collaboration.

So, do you think that the Twitter community could evolve a code of ethics for reportage?  It would obviously be unenforceable, but all of Australia’s media regulation is self-regulation and it works (most of the time) and could at least be used to educate people about the impact of the information they circulate online. Or would the process of attempting to make Twitter more like the mainstream media kill the spur of the moment nature of microblogging?  Or would it hurt the mainstream media if Twitter coverage gained more validity?  That seems pretty unlikely to me.

Any thoughts?  I’m interested to hear people’s views.

If you need help or are feeling depressed, there is information and assistance available:

Beyond Blue

Reach Out

(PS.  Anyone know any Indonesian sites like these?)

One Response to " Suicide reporting, responsibility and Twitter "

  1. Unspun says:

    Thanks for the link. The trouble with social media is that everybody can become a publisher at a very low cost of entry – a mobile with data access – and most people do not have the grounding in journalistic principles of factual accuracy, sensibility and taste. I think the only viable solution is for the more established Tweeps to influence the Twittersphere to be more discretionary. Everything else – code of ethics, guidelines etc – will either fall on deaf ears to the social media masses and therefore – as you pointed out – unenforceable. Like your blog BTW