Suicide and the media – a tragical relation? An interview with Izabela Korbiel

Suicides receive special media attention, they make the headlines and touch many people. In particular, the suicides of celebrities such as the footballer Robert Enke and those of young people in general lead to horror, dismay and sadness. It is widely discussed whether and to what extent reports or fictional visualizations of suicides in the media can move or inspire people to commit suicide themselves.

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The project of Izabela Korbiel, member of the Media Governance and Industries Research Lab at the Vienna University, supervised by Prof. K. Sarikakis, covers a field of suicide and public sphere and explores primary European newspapers. She is interested in the historical dimension of suicide rates in Europe and the issue as a public policy topic in public debate, given that during economic crisis suicide rates increase. One of the central questions in this project is whether suicide is reported as a political act under crisis circumstances or is it portrayed as an individual problem of people in deep psychical crisis?

Suicide is an issue which is very controversial. Media sites like Focus Online report to a limited extent about this phenomenon, and if they do so, at the end of the article they add a warning and the number of a helpline. Are suicides becoming such a massive phenomenon?

The World Health Organisation, together with the European Union, have a common goal to implement national suicide preventing programmes and reduce the suicide rate by one third. One element of the prevention programmes concerns the role of the media, as formulated in WHO’s working paper: „Controlling the environment through responsible media reporting is another important way of preventing suicidal acts in susceptible individuals“.

The theoretical framework for the influence of media covering suicide is Bandura’s concept ‚learning on model‘ (1986). According to that, people learn their behaviour patterns while observing other individuals in their surroundings. Additionally to that, there is evidence that behaviour can be learned not only from real persons but also from fictional characters known via media, i.e. in films or books.

In the early 1980s, in 1981 to be precise, the German network ZDF aired the television series „Tod eines Schülers“ (Death of a Student), which is about the rail suicide of a male teenager and the reactions of his personal space: teachers, family members, friends and the like – portrayed from different perspectives in six episodes. It is reported that after the broadcast, the suicide rate among adolescents in the railway sector piled up by 175%, the second broadcast 18 months later yet still by 115%. Studies commissioned by ZDF refuted a connection, but the series was not published on DVD until of 2009. In the 1980s the band „The Cure“ was assumed to promote suicides after fans killed or injured themselves while listening to the music or even attempted to stab themselves to death on stage during concerts. Is there really a relationship between media reception and suicidal tendencies?

Based on the aforementioned, suicidal behaviour presented by the media can be copied by media recipients, what the literature calls the Werther effect. On the other hand there are situations when the imitation behaviour can have a prevention effect, if positive patterns, such as alternative solutions, are being presented. Persons with suicidal ideations were motivated to seek help after they got in touch with media content including reasonable, professional and easy accessible description of help sources. Therefore media have a potential for suicide prevention known as the Papageno effect.

Obviously Focus Online is doing the right thing, then. Adding warnings and offering help to articles with such content?

This is one side of the coin. The second is the question rising during the crisis that is whether reducing the explanations to the individual level in terms of protecting the public is still reasonable under the new conditions? Durkheim, who in 1897 published the first scientific work about the phenomenon of suicide, came to the conclusion that social factors are alone responsible for suicide. It means if a person is strongly integrated in the society, has a stable relationship with a group of people and lives within a strong regulated community, s/he is not in risk of committing suicide. Crises as a ‘period of exception’ change old rules and bring new challenges to the society, doing the same to the media; adequacy of old rules and regulations is questioned.

According to Ulrich Beck or Zygmunt Bauman our societies, at least those Western societies we live in, are founded on less and less common norms and values. People have to construct their identity not from tradition, family or religion but to actively choose from and opt for what they believe in and what they belong to. Brand names and consumption make the man, it seems. Do you think that this proves Durkheim right?

I think the reasons today are different than in Durkheim’s time. Individuals have more choice and there is less societal control. On the other hand the economical crisis has brought people into precarious situation and restricted individual freedom. Especially for Southern Europe it is a tough time. Suicide rates are increasing, i.e. in Greece by 40% although the solidarity among citizens is very high. We observe again the phenomenon of political suicide, an extreme way to demonstrate a failure of the society. Only in Bulgaria there were last year seven cases of self- immolation in public, what does it mean for the society? Individuals become political and we cannot see it any more as their personal problem. The issue is, however, suicide is still a taboo theme and it is difficult to start a discussion.

Do you think that social workers should also have an eye on the media, respectively their clients and their media consumption? Do social workers need media literacy?

Absolutetly they need media literacy as we all do. The work of social workers can be only effective if they understand the environment and media, especially new media, play an increasing significant role nowadays. Media spread shared values and shape public opinion, but also provide behaviour patterns as we said before. In the research there is a lively discussion about the so called suicide fora where people discuss online their suicidal intentions. This is a potential place where social workers could be active.

Additional information can be found at: http://mediagovernance.univie.ac.at/people/izabela-korbiel/

(Das Interview führte Stefan Piasecki)

 

Izabela Korbiel studierte Soziologie und ist Doktorandin am Institut für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft der Universität Wien und Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe „The Media Governance and Industries Research Team“. Sie schreibt ihre Dissertation zum Thema „Suizid in Krisenzeiten. Eine Analyse über die mediale Berichterstattung über Suizid während der Weltwirtschaftskrise“ unter Betreuung von Univ.-Prof. Dr. Katharine Sarikakis. (https://medienportal.univie.ac.at/uniview/forschung/detailansicht/artikel/meine-forschung-suizid-als-medienthema/, 10.11.2015)

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