The news of Robin Williams’ suicide this Monday in his California home has shocked and saddened fans the world over from the entertainment industry and outside of it. In varying degrees of detail, almost every media outlet recounted and dissected the events that led up to Williams’ suicide, the suicide itself and, naturally, social media reactions from the actor’s die-hard admirers.
While the tragic death raises questions about America’s growing suicide numbers, its extensive coverage has raised a few questions around ethics, cyber bullying and social responsibility in the offline and online media realms.
The number of suicides in the US had been growing at an alarming rate even before news of Williams’ death hit the channels, but the suicide of a celebrity always has health experts worrying more than usual. These concerns are not unfounded. In medicine and social sciences, “The Werther Effect,” is a “synonym for media-induced imitation effects of suicidal behavior”. It sounds much like “suicide contagion”, which is “a phenomenon in which additional, often similar suicides take place following the report of a suicide, presumably inspired by reporting on the original suicide,” as defined by The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The idea that a celebrity who seemingly has it all – love, fame and fortune – yet couldn’t cope with his struggles and chose a permanent end, makes those who are already depressed and vulnerable even more dejected and inclined to choose the same solution.
After Marilyn Monroe’s suicide back in 1962, researchers found a significant increase in suicides across the nation that same year in women belonging to the same demopgraphic as Monroe – white women in their 30s and early 40s. Several suicide prevention centers reported an increase in calls to their lifelines on the night of and in the next few days of Williams’ suicide.
In a 2013 study, researchers found that extensive reporting on charcoal burning suicides in Taiwan contributed to a rapid rise in “copycat” suicides. Taking into account this and other such studies, several countries have set guidelines for the media on reporting suicides.
The American Association of Suicidology is among those to have released such guidelines, stating: “research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals” and that the “risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images and repeated/extensive coverage, [and] sensationalizes or glamorizes a death”. In the UK, too, there exists a Samaritan’s guide for the media on reporting suicides; one that has been greatly ignored by UK’s leading publications while reporting William’s death.
It isn’t only the ethics of media coverage and reporting that are in question. While video-on-demand platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, tactfully put together special playlists of Williams’ movies, there are others who can be held responsible for negligence, if not controversy. BBC Three aired an episode of Family Guy around the same time the news first hit media channels. The episode features a segment in which Peter Griffin has the ability to turn everything he touches into Robin Williams; but after being unable to handle the power, he attempts suicide. A BBC spokesperson chalked it down to an “uncanny coincidence” and canceled re-run slots of the episode on Friday, as per the channel’s earlier schedule.
Speaking of responsibility, there’s something to be said for the online community. The ease of social media often distorts the line between expressing sentiments and cyber bullying. Zelda, Williams’ daughter, decided to stay off social media after receiving photoshopped images of her deceased father on Twitter poking fun at his suicide.
She was also criticized for posting too many pictures of herself with her father on Instagram. It is reported that she has now deleted both Twitter and Instagram – where she issued a statement (check image on the left).
The demise of Robin Williams is a significant loss to the world, but more importantly to those closest to him. While media houses cover their duties and fans sing William’s glories, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the only real thing to do about tragedies beyond our control, is to control the aftermath that follows – because that is a human responsibility.
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