Compliments and Criticisms of 'The Media'

Please note - Some may find the content in this article distressing or triggering. For support or information call: Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, MensLine 1300 78 99 78.

Whilst I wrote about it in my last post, the latest national data on suicide deaths are still on my mind. In particular, it’s really brought to my attention the profound shift over the past decade or so, on how statistics and research and prevention projects and anything else suicide-related are reported on by the media. And this shift has been pretty bang on. So for one (small) moment, I would like to stop and congratulate the media on a job (pretty) well done.

I remember quite vividly when it first came to my attention that journalists weren't reporting on suicide deaths. It was on hearing of the news of the death of a cricket writer. It was big news at the time, as I was at my parents’ house with a cricket-adoring partner. Following the news story, I asked “I wonder how he died?” and my Dad and partner reported “Well, he must have suicided”, to which I was gobsmacked. How had they both come to this conclusion without any mention of the cause of death being noted in the story? Apparently, unbeknownst to me at the time, if journalists didn’t mention cause of death what they really meant is suicide. I was outraged. And I ranted and raved. I mostly directed all of this to my partner at the time. He had once been a journalist after all. Sorry Nick.

But fast forward a decade or so, and the issue of suicide appears to be one with which the community is engaged and the media report on regularly. In 2014 – the year of the current statistics release – there were a number of high profile celebrity suicides, including the death of Robin Williams. This was leading news across the world. And overall, it seemed to me, was reported on appropriately, sensitively and empathically.
And it’s not an easy thing to report on. Unlike advocacy for other public health issues, such as smoking cessation and reducing car accidents, which have no reported evidence linking the way it is reported to potential harms, with suicide reporting the evidence is different. The way the media report on suicide can have an impact to our rates of suicide.

It’s really important that all people involved in communicating about suicide do so in a way that limits risk to those vulnerable to suicide. So whilst covering an emotionally charged issue, removing things associated with increasing risk – like details about the method of suicide – and increasing things that promote safety – like the inclusion of help-seeking behaviour are vital. And the media has become really good at this. In 2010 an independent media monitoring study showed major improvements in the quality and number of reports in the Australian media with regard to suicide. (This probably also has something to do with Mindframe – a national media initiative which has been working with the media and suicide prevention organisations for some time on this issue. You can check out their guidelines for media reporting here.)

So – big congrats and kudos to the media on this one!

BUT, there’s still some room for improvement. It would be super nice if the entire universe of the media extended their good work on suicide reporting to that of all mental illness.
Recently I’ve become a little disillusioned with the media, and their reporting on a particular group of people. Those who use illicit substances. And when I say a little disillusioned, what I really mean is totes angry.

The World Health Organisation has categorised people who use illicit drugs as the most stigmatised health condition in the world. And as we know, the experience of stigma can have wide ranging impacts on an individual’s health and general quality of life. This can include limiting economic and social participation, and a willingness to access drug treatment or support for other health and social concerns, such as physical health problems, mental health problems and homelessness.

There’s been a couple of reports I’ve come across recently where I’ve noticed the use of the term “junkie” or “addict” being used to describe an entire group of people who use illicit drugs. Rumour has it that the term “junkie” was coined at the beginning of the 20th century and used to describe people in New York who looked through rubbish dumps and vacant lots for scrap metal to sell for money to pay for illicit substances. Today the word “junkie” conjures up such graphic images to most of society that I am not even going to spell them out. In general it refers to the human ‘junk’ of our society. And if you ask me (which I realise no one did) to label any fellow human being as junk is disgusting. And dangerous.

Media representation of this issue, whom the general public rely on for much of their information relating to alcohol and other drug (AOD) issues, can be very simplistic, often linking AOD use to crime. If people in the media continue to use the term “junkie” (or “addict”) when referring to people using illicit substances this perpetuates a fearful, moralistic view which maintains a justification for discrimination and social exclusion of individuals experiencing problems relating to drug use.

And it just keeps the stigma burning bright. Recent research has found that current stigma for those using illicit substances is “as damaging as similar attitudes to gay people, and people with mental health issues, were 30-40 years ago". And the consequences are so obvious. Whilst alcohol and drug polices seek greater reintegration and recovery and focus on public health and prevention, these things can’t succeed if people with drug-related issues are continued to be seen as the ‘junk’ of our society. Research consistently shows us that stigma prevents help-seeking, with individuals experiencing more difficulty recognising potential problems with substance use and seeking help as they don’t identify with the societal stereotype. Furthermore the feelings of shame and worthlessness engendered through stigmatisation also prevent people accessing treatment because they feel they are not worthy of assistance.

This is just one example, where the media could improve a little. And I am sure there are hundreds more (just in the arena of mental health). But the good news is that maybe they could learn from their positive experience with reporting on suicide, and adapt some of these practices so that another vulnerable population is not placed at further risk.

Would you read a news story anchored by hope and sensitivity, which challenged myths, stigma and previously held perceptions on an issue? I would. If someone would write them.

Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
beyondblue: 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78
Youth Support Services
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7 crisis support)
headspace: 1800 650 890

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