We are facing a book that has come to break, with the authority of a serious and documented analysis, one of those maxims of the newsrooms that were repeated like a mantra: suicide is better not to speak because it is information with a mimetic effect. There were many voices that were questioning this maxim, but as it happens so many times, always indicated as “discordant voices” with the majority opinion, but without more.
The author compiles in the introduction a series of information and data, at the same time that he records the diversity of approaches that in relation to suicide should make us think, beyond the discomfort or disgust expressed by relatives or people close to a targeted suicide of an information note. Diversity of approaches such as that the WHO recommends close collaboration between authorities and the media to prevent suicidal behavior, or that there are countries such as the United States, New Zealand or Finland where they have assumed that suicide is a social failure. But as we are used to the fact that the data constitute a strong argument, those related to suicide are devastating.
«In Spain, 3,569 people took their lives in 2016, almost twice as many deaths as in a traffic accident (1,890), twelve times more than by homicide (292) and 81 times more than by gender violence (44). If instead of “suicide”, the previous statement had been terrorism, hunger, drugs or any of the other causes of the comparison, all the media in the country would have opened their editions with that news, the opposition would be asking for explanations. to the government, social networks would inflame and the streets would be populated with protesters »(p. 17).
Strange, no doubt. In a world hyperconnected by social media, in which Google returns millions of results from websites with dangerous content for people at risk of suicide, silence does not seem the most responsible behavior. The book helps to distinguish what from how in the first place, which is key to starting a leisurely reflection: the nature of information about suicide is one thing, and the how of such information is another.
In the first four chapters we have a kind of phenomenology of what of that information: what happened when silence was the usual way of proceeding (chapter 1: silence and errors); a consideration of why the rules applied in this regard have already become obsolete (Chapter 2); the irruption of social networks in the social communicative space (Chapter 3) and the more detailed analysis of the what in the information about suicide.
Then comes the consideration of the recipient of the information (chapter 5), its mode (chapter 6) and the purpose (chapter 7). As the epilogue points out:
«This book is not intended as a guide to how to speak well about suicide, nor does it have all the answers to how to do it: the concrete criteria must be constructed day by day in each writing. These pages only seek to open a window and record how to do it. And that it is time to do it. It is possible and necessary that the media already talk about suicide, avoiding the contagion effect, and thus join as another agent in the task of pushing this enormous challenge that is prevention »(p. 163).
There is no doubt that if the media have, in their raison d’être, the common good of a society, attending to a dramatic first-rate reality such as that of suicide requires serene reflection and practical resolution consistent with the exercise of the responsibility of the communicator. If, as the author points out, in Spain ten people kill themselves daily, we cannot continue looking the other way as if it were just another statistic. And in this task of becoming aware and pointing the way, these pages take a very wise first step. I will briefly indicate what, in my opinion, are its main successes in this regard.
The first, as the text of the epilogue just quoted says, which does not seek to give easy recipes, but to provoke reflection. We cannot entrust the ethical exercise of journalism to the fulfillment of norms or closed deontological guidelines, but rather, to the exercise of a prudent discernment that knows how to put into play not only an excellent knowledge of the reality with which it deals (in this case not not only specific suicide, but also the complexity of factors that come together in such an act), but also the way in which information contributes to the construction of a more just society.
The analysis of the first chapter on the most common errors in the way of treating suicides depending on the different typologies of their news character sheds much light to gradually form the professional’s criteria. After showing various errors and their consequences, he concludes briefly with four guidelines that set the tone for ethical work in treatment of suicide news:
«Respect, prudence and rigor. The three characteristics that generally marked that coverage, as well as the exercise of responsibility for going to specialists, should be the way to go for future specific cases of suicide linked to a social problem ”(p. 41).
There is a very thin red line between the media addressing an issue and helping to solve it on the one hand, and believing it on the other. Silence may have prevented suicide, we don’t know,
“But what is proven is that not reporting it has not led to a decrease in the number of deaths by suicide: in Spain, between 1993 and 2016, the number of victims has always remained above 3,000 deaths and below 4,000, with a very stable trend »(p. 43).
The book offers numerous data that allow the reader to elaborate a reasoned opinion on what may be the best way to deal with the information on such a delicate subject. There is no doubt that we are facing a drama with a high social impact.
“The only way for suffering people to feel that they can speak without being marked by stigma and social shame, so that the survivors do not see their pain increased, and so that society knows, and therefore demands from the administrations, some more decisive measures in prevention. A change must be generated in society’s attitude towards suicide – more active, less neutral, more empathetic with those who suffer – because only in this way, perhaps, can a certain positive influence be exerted on vulnerable people ”(p .64).
The fourth chapter describes quite clearly all those elements that are present in suicide and that are not the fatal outcome of it. Attending to reality is not turning death into a news event or the method used. There are another series of black spots, warning signs, consequences of the attempts, the mourning of the people affected (between 6 and 10 for each case, who are called “survivors”), the contents of social networks … The journalist , he explains in the fifth chapter, he must direct his information in a double sense: towards the population in general, but also towards the population at risk, so it is necessary to alternate approaches in which the negative effects are emphasized, with other softer. Suicide prevention is a long-term and sustained strategy over time.
In how to talk about suicide (Chapter 6), the author offers an adaptation of the informational strategies developed for the treatment of gender violence on the one hand, and of deaths from traffic accidents on the other. It is clear that there are analogies, rather than parallels, but it is interesting to explore new ways of addressing a social problem that we must help to become aware of, which is why, in addition to this analogy, the author explores the help of social networks and the social marketing.
An interesting book, without a doubt, that offers data and references that until now have been little used in Spain and that advocates a responsible change in the way of reporting suicide. Not only because silence is irresponsible when we talk about the first cause of violent death, but because when that silence is broken, so far, there is a certain risk of doing it irresponsibly or without reasonable guidelines.