The latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau reveals that more than 150,000 individuals died by suicide in India in 2020, with a devastating impact on their families, friends, and communities. Given this scenario, experts have argued for a coordinated public health approach to suicide prevention in India. Responsible and balanced media reporting is an essential component of a public health approach to preventing suicide; it promotes awareness and prevents subsequent suicides, whereas sensationalized reporting may trigger suicidal behavior among vulnerable individuals.
The literature on media reporting of suicide in India remains limited. Further, available studies have assessed quality of media reporting against the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting guidelines; none evaluated adherence to the recent reporting guidelines issued by the Press Council of India (PCI) in 2019. Given this scenario, we planned the present study to evaluate the quality of media reporting in print newspapers of the state of Odisha against both international as well as local media reporting guidelines. We chose the eastern state of Odisha because the suicide rate in the state is pegged at 12.2 per 100,000 population, which is above the national average of 11.3 per 100,000 population.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Study setting and data collection
A team of two bilingual psychiatrists independently reviewed all suicide news reports published in the printed versions of the two most widely read English (TheTimesofIndia and TheNewIndianExpress) and local language (Odia) newspapers (Sambad and Samaj) across 1 year from October 1, 2019, to September 30, 2020. The selected newspapers figure among the most widely read newspapers in the state. The search was performed retrospectively, in person, and printed newspapers were sourced from physical libraries. Before study initiation, both the investigators were explained the selection and coding of reports by a team of senior investigators with prior experience in such research. We included all news articles reporting a suicide event (both suicide and attempted suicide) within the geographical boundaries of the state of Odisha during the study; reports of suicide that occurred outside the state boundaries were excluded.
Relevant data were extracted using a Google form, which was prepared apriori based on the checklist for media reporting of suicide by the WHO and the PCI. We chose the WHO reporting guidelines as the measure of quality assessment because it is the most widely employed measure in media reporting studies from India and Asia.
The initial part of the questionnaire collected necessary descriptive information about the report such as name and date of the publication, language of the news report, the position of the news report (main section or supplement of the newspaper), and length of the news report (<11 sentences, 11–20 sentences, and more than 20 sentences). Subsequent information from the report was extracted under the following headings:
Content in the title of the report
The following variables were coded in this section: mention of the person’s name, age, gender, occupation of the person, method of suicide, the reason for suicide, location of suicide, and triggering life events.
Content in the body of the report
Here, we coded all the above information. Moreover, we also coded mentioning detailed description of steps involved in committing suicide (operationalized as mentioning any two sequential steps of suicide), relevant life events, mono-causal explanations, mention of suicide note, effects on the family, interview of bereaved family members, information on warning signs and association of the event with mental health issues, and other helpful reporting practices elucidated in the WHO reporting guidelines.
In addition, items based on the PCI reporting guidelines which were not covered by WHO guidelines were also coded; this included the presence of repeating stories, use of sensationalized language, normalization of suicide (as a constructive way to deal with life’s issues), explicit description of method used (operationalized as including a description about the suicide method but without mentioning sequential steps of suicide), usage of sensational headlines, inclusion of links to relevant video footage or social media.
Each of the above variables was coded as yes or no based on the presence or absence of the item in the news report. After completing data entry, all fields were independently checked by the first author; any missing data were corrected at this stage.
Descriptive statistics (frequencies with percentages) were used to depict the data extracted. Quality assessment of media suicide reports was described under potentially harmful characteristics and potentially helpful characteristics as per the WHO reporting guidelines and summarized using descriptive statistics.
As the study involved analysis of secondary data available in the public domain, no formal approval of an independent ethics committee was sought for carrying out the present work.
A total of 248 relevant news reports of suicide were identified during the search. Of these news reports, 130 (52.4%) were local language (Odia) news reports, and the remaining (n = 118, 47.8%) were English news reports. The break-up of news reports in the individual newspapers was as follows: TheNewIndianExpress (n = 67), Sambad (n = 67), Samaj (n = 63), and TheTimesofIndia (n = 51).
Descriptive characteristics of the reports
The majority (n = 246, 99.2%) of the news articles were published in the newspaper’s central section, with 26.2% (n = 65) having a highly prominent placement. Approximately one in five news articles (n = 54, 21.8%) were lengthy and occupied more than 20 sentences. The majority of the news reports (n = 233, 93.9%) were about suicide decedents, and 76.6% (n = 190) of the articles discussed a single suicide case.
Quality assessment of suicide reporting against World Health Organization reporting guidelines
More than half of the news reports mentioned gender (83.5%), method of suicide (60.9%), and location of suicide (52.0%) in the title of the news reports. Similarly, the majority of the news reports discussed the personal details [name (74.2%), age (60.9%), and gender (98.4%)], and details of the suicidal act [method of suicide (87.5%), location of suicide (84.3%)] in the body of the news report. More than half of the news reports mentioned inciting life events (61.7%) and proposed a monocausal explanation (54.8%) for suicide.
Potentially helpful reporting characteristics such as mentioning the effects on the bereaved (8.1%), warning signs of suicide (5.2%), associated mental health issues (10. 9%), suicide research data (2.4%), or statistics (2.0%), and including educational and preventive information (0.40%) were relatively less common. None of the news reports mentioned the contact details of support services [Table 1].
Quality assessment of suicide reporting against Press Council of India reporting guidelines
The most common reporting infringement mentioned details about the suicide site or location (48.8%) followed by explicit descriptions of the suicide method used (46.8%) [Table 2].
Our findings show that media reporting of suicide in Odisha is imbalanced and poorly adherent to international and the PCI’s reporting guidelines. Harmful reporting practices were very prevalent; in contrast, there was little focus on helpful reporting practices. Readers were commonly exposed to lengthy, prominently placed, and sensationalist portrayals of suicide stories.
Our findings are consistent with prior studies from India and South East Asia which assessed the quality of media reporting of suicide against international guidelines. The use of explicit language to describe the identity of the person was highly prevalent in the reports; observed figures were much higher than a previous study from India though lower than some others and much higher compared to studies from developed nations. Likewise, reporting of suicide methods and steps involved in suicide were common transgressions, comparable to other studies from India and South East Asia. A detailed description of suicide methods can trigger imitative suicides by providing a model to those vulnerable; accordingly, there is a need to curb this practice.
Crucially, amidst these reporting infringements, there was little focus on reporting practices that provide hope and help to readers. A little more than a tenth of the reports discussed association with mental health issues, very few reports included any information on suicide-related warning signs, expert opinions, suicide-related statistics, or research findings, and, rather strikingly, none of the reports included any information on suicide support services, such as suicide helplines. These represent clear violation of reporting guidelines and are in line with reporting trends from India, Asia, and elsewhere.
Given the weight of evidence on the sub-optimal quality of media reporting of suicide in India and Asian countries, we propose a few recommendations such as framing national guidelines for responsible media reporting, commissioning of a national media monitoring agency and greater collaboration and engagement with media professionals to improve the scenario on media reporting of suicide.
The present study had two key limitations. First, we covered only four newspapers from a single state in India over a 1-year time period. Second, our findings may not generalize to other forms of print media such as tabloids or evening newspapers.
Media reporting of suicide in Odisha, India, is poorly adherent to PCI and WHO reporting guidelines. These findings point to the need for greater engagement and collaboration with media professionals to promote balanced and responsible suicide reporting.
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
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