Is Suicide Caught on Video ‘News’?
Gawker, which makes its living reporting on the banality of celebrities’ lives, says that a YouTube video of a man committing suicide at the end of car chase is ‘news.’
Its definition of news is simple — if people are interested in it, it’s news. Kitten videos? Yes! Christina Aguilera’s vagina? Yes! Suicide accidentally aired on a news network? Yes! More kitten videos? Yes!
Yes, a day as an editor at Gawker must be very difficult.
But there’s actually a rationale not to link to a video showing someone committing suicide. Gawker and its ethics-challenged staff doesn’t seem to care about that rationale, but I thought it might be valuable to review anyway.
The story, if you hadn’t heard, began on a cable news network (Fox) that was following a live car chase. Ever since the OJ Simpson “car chase,” it has become fodder for cable news networks to follow car chases live on slow news days. Just in case something interesting or exciting happens. (You have no idea how difficult it is to fill 24 hours of airtime on TV with something interesting to watch.)
At the end of the car chase, the driver got out of the car, stumbled around a bit, headed off into the brush, took out a gun, and shot himself in the head. The entire incident took less than a minute, and the newscast was caught off guard by the driver’s actions and let the shooting out on air by accident on Friday.
Then the fact that there was this video you could watch online of a real person pulling the trigger to his own head became the “news,” and suddenly everybody wanted to watch that 5 seconds when it happened.
Hamilton Nolan, a senior writer for Gawker, helped defend Gawker’s decision to link to the video:
When we heard that Fox News had aired a suicide, what was the first thing we all did? Search on the internet for the clip. The clip is news. It is unpleasant, but it is news.
I think what he meant to say is that it might be “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting” — newsworthy — but it is definitely not news that someone committed suicide.
Each day, about 88 people commit suicide in the U.S. You rarely hear about them on the news, because such deaths are not news nor newsworthy — unless someone does so in a somewhat dramatic way. In fact, the only time you hear about someone’s suicide is when they are (a) a celebrity or (b) did it in a very public setting witnessed by others, like jumping off a bridge.
And that’s the difference between journalism and the faux-journalism that passes as journalism online today. Sites like Gawker beat their chests over the “journalism” they’re doing by simply providing access to things like a video that others might want to watch. That’s not journalism — that’s providing a link directory, like what Fark’s been doing for over a decade.
When we start picking and choosing whether or not we run clearly newsworthy things based on whether or not they make us queasy, we’re in slippery slope territory. It is, in my opinion, ethical to run the clip.
Justifying one’s poor judgment and lack of ethics with some words and self-congratulations on your tough ‘decision’ to run it is a sad, simplistic child-like rationalization. Good editorial decisions are made every day about what news stories will be run and which ones won’t be. If you’re not “picking and choosing” which stories you run on a variety of criteria (which may indeed include queasiness factor), then you’re not really adding any value to the conversation, are you? I can get unedited news feeds anywhere, so why would I turn to Gawker if they aren’t adding anything of editorial value?
If Gawker had done its civic and journalistic duty, it would’ve spent a few minutes reading Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media (PDF), you know, like real journalists. This report was researched and prepared by a bunch of government and advocacy organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Office of the Surgeon General, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. These folks actually know — and care — about suicide, and what kind of effect showing a suicide can have on others.
Media stories about individual deaths by suicide may be newsworthy and need to be covered, but they also have the potential to do harm. Implementation of recommendations for media coverage of suicide has been shown to decrease suicide rates.
Nowhere did Gawker follow any of these recommendations in either its original story, nor in its justification letter (linked to below).
Why not? Was it too hard to follow these recommendations? Were they so unclear that simply linking to a video of someone committing suicide without any context or links to suicide prevention resources might be a little unhelpful?
Or is it because Gawker and its staff just don’t care what effects their coverage decisions have on the lives of others?
I can’t answer this question. And I suspect neither can Gawker, in any way that makes sense to suicide prevention advocates and researchers.
Read the blog entry on Gawker: Car Chases, Live TV, and Ethics
Grohol, J. (2018). Is Suicide Caught on Video ‘News’?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 5, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/is-suicide-caught-on-video-news/