In addition to entertainment media (covered in Part I), the news media can have immense impact on the public’s perceptions and behaviors as well as policymakers’ perceptions and the policy agenda – for better or for worse. News media’s critical role in my (current) area of focus within public health, violence prevention, is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
A quick quiz (take a guess before you read on): How many homicides are there in the U.S. each year? Suicides?
In the most recent year for which data is available from the CDC (2007), there were 18,361 homicides and 34,598 suicides in the United States. Twice as many people died by suicide as died by homicide. Yet, almost everyone responds that there are more homicides than suicides. Why? At least partially because the news media report on homicides far more than suicides, contributing to the perception that homicides are much more common. I’m not 100% sure what impact this misperception has, but it’s worth considering.
Moving on to things where the impact is clear – I listened in on a Prevent Connect webinar last week in which Larry Cohen of the Prevention Institute and Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group spoke about violence against women and the role media plays. They highlighted a number of problematic issues when it comes to news coverage of violent incidents:
– perpetuation of key norms that contribute to gender based violence (power/control, limited role of women, limited definition of masculinity, violence, and silence/privacy when it comes to talking about the issue);
– language that humanizes the perpetrator (details that help audience relate to the perpetrator as a person) and dehumanizes the victim;
– a focus on criminal justice as opposed to prevention;
– and a focus on individuals as opposed to institutions and policies.
Cohen and Dorfman talked about the need to reframe news media coverage, moving from a personal responsibility frame to one of institutional accountability. When a news story is framed around personal responsibility, people blame the victim. In order to advance prevention, it is critical that we focus more on the environment in which we live, including policies and institutions and how they can contribute to promoting health. (As a side note, another interesting case study in news media framing is obesity – when framed around personal responsibility, it is easy to blame those who are overweight and keep moving; when framed around the environment in which we live, then we get into prevention discussions – better access to healthy foods, more opportunities to exercise, etc.)
There were a lot of practical suggestions arising from the webinar, including working with survivors of violent incidents to speak to the media in a way that advances prevention – so that they not only explain what happened, but also express their anger that the incident could have been prevented and focus on parts of their story that they can link to what could happen next to prevent future incidents. We in public health definitely need to do more to work with advocates and media personnel to encourage safe and responsible reporting.
News media reporting can also contribute to more violence on the suicide front. Over 60 research articles have examined the issue of media reporting of suicide and found that certain types of coverage can lead to imitative behavior – examples of dangerous coverage, as well as coverage that can actually aid prevention efforts, can be seen in the diagram below.
The diagram is taken from recommendations on reporting on suicide published jointly by a number of suicide prevention organization based on the aforementioned research on the subject.
On a related note, in the last year or so, bullying has captured the attention of the nation, and stories linking bullying and suicide abound. Most of the news media coverage linking specific suicides to bullying in a direct, causal way are inaccurate, and even more concerning, this kind of coverage is dangerous: vulnerable people (particularly those already contemplating suicide) who see such coverage relate to the victim’s experiences being bullied and may be more likely to attempt suicide as a result.
Indeed, as covered during yesterday’s Suicide Prevention Resource Center webinar, there are a number of prevailing suicide narratives in the media, and they can play a dangerous role in suicide contagion. One such narrative is that of bullying leading directly and inevitably to suicide. One example they talked about in the webinar: headlines proclaiming Phoebe Prince “bullied to death”. The big picture: Prince had moved to a new country, her parents had divorced, she was struggling with poor grades, recently broke up with her boyfriend, had a history of depression and had previously attempted suicide.
This is not to say that bullying does not have terrible impacts – it often does. But in simplifying the story, and making it sound like Phoebe Prince’s death by suicide was a direct result of bullying she experienced at school, and nothing else, the news media risks leading other vulnerable youth who are experiencing bullying to see suicide as an answer. Alternatively, media could touch on the complexities of these issues and focus on resources for prevention (for bullying and suicide), sources of support (particularly mental health services), counter-narratives of hope and recovery, etc., all of which could help prevent suicides instead of risking perpetuating them.
Public health professionals have a responsibility to work with media to ensure recommendations regarding safe and responsible reporting are followed and to ensure prevention efforts are getting attention. And media personnel have a responsibility to seek out and follow such recommendations, realizing that the stakes are as high as they get – their reporting can be the difference between life and death.