In journalism school, we were taught to be very careful when reporting on suicide. We were told romanticized reporting of suicide and glorifying the deceased can have devastating consequences – specifically in the form of copycat suicides.
“There is a significant evidence-base demonstrating that media reporting of suicides is linked to copycat suicides among youth and young adults under 24 years of age,” reads the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide.
Yet, since Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor’s case was brought before the Supreme Court, we’ve been reading things like, “Kay Carter died happy, with a smile on her face because she died the way she wanted,” and have been bombarded with euphemisms like “dying with dignity,” “medical aid in dying,” even “going to Switzerland.”
The same CPA guidelines recommend journalists avoid including details of the method, the word “suicide” in the headline, photo(s) of the deceased, admiration of the deceased, repetitive or excessive coverage, front page coverage, exciting reporting, romanticized reasons for the suicide, simplistic reasons for the suicide or approval of the suicide. Over the past several months, all of these examples have appeared in Canadian media coverage of assisted suicide.
A CBC story about a Calgary woman who ended her own life, for example, quotes her friend: “”She is an inspiration. She knew where she was going. She’s always been an agent of change in life.” Now who doesn’t want to die with a smile on their face, an “inspiration?” The conversation around suicide has shifted drastically, it is no longer a topic to be broached with caution so as not to encourage others take their own lives but is being painted as a preferred way to go, with “dignity,” and “choice.”
The latest recommendations from the Government’s Special Joint Committee on Physician Assisted Dying go further than the Court seems to have anticipated, but that doesn’t mean journalists should follow suit. When reporting on sexual assault, many media stories are prefaced with a “trigger warning.” Why is this not the case when covering assisted suicide? For those tempted to end their own life – whether in physical or psychological pain or enduring some sort of hardship, would these kind of stories not make the choice more appealing?
Journalists have an obligation to guard their coverage from the kind of romanticized language that could lead to “suicide contagion.” The CPA recommends including alternatives to suicide – such as treatment, examples of a positive outcome of a suicidal crisis, community resource information for those with suicidal ideation, guidelines for how to approach a suicidal person and how to spot warnings of suicidal behaviour.
Just because the discussion has now swayed to assisted-suicide doesn’t mean the rules for reporting on suicide should not apply. Lives are at stake, and whatever your position on euthanasia, it’s not something we should encourage.
Ada Slivinski is a Canadian journalist who writes about family and social issues.