Let’s shoot the messenger

Let’s shoot the messenger
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First Published: Thu, Apr 03 2008. 10 09 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Apr 03 2008. 10 09 PM IST
With board exams largely over and results yet to be declared, I join teenagers and parents in breathing a sigh of relief. No, not over the stress. The cramming, the all-nighters, the way-off-the-syllabus questions? Nope, didn’t even break a sweat.
It’s the headlines I can’t stand.
“Exam system drives kids to suicide,” The Times of India blared.
“Sixth class student commits suicide after failing in exams,” United News of India wire service dutifully informed.
“Under exam pressure, two commit suicide,” from The Indian Express.
With each one, I cringe, wondering just how the media arrived at the conclusion. Interviews with the parents, uncles, neighbours are often cited. Sometimes, there’s a note. Inevitably, reporters quote from it: “I could not let you down,” it usually says. “The pressure was getting to be too much.”
Even when there’s no such note, anonymous police officers are almost always quoted, saying speculative things like, “She was not very good in her studies and could not concentrate.”
One by one, each story breaks your heart because chances are, if the departed made it as far as class X or XII exams, there was a real palpable chance that they could have been “someone”. And yet in death, the details blur in our minds, characterized by sickening details about hanging from fans, dupattas tied every which way, belts and balconies, pills and pesticide.
Enough.
Because the media—yes, that includes me—really need to get one thing straight when it comes to covering suicide, proven time and time again by studies. People generally do not attempt suicide because of exams or their parents, a teacher they hated or a subject that perplexed.
They do so because they are depressed. They might be depressed as a result of aforementioned factors but to blame one alone feels a stretch, irresponsible—and, in the opinion of many scholars, deadly.
In an article titled, Can suicide coverage lead to copycats?, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, cites the case of suicides in Vienna, Austria, as she calls for more responsible media coverage.
Between 1984 and 1987, journalists in Vienna extensively and graphically reported on a spate of people jumping in front of trains. Suicides increased.
In 1987, after a campaign began to alert reporters to the problem and the amount of reporting dropped, the suicides and failed attempts also fell—by more than 80%.
“Social scientists have long known that suicides increase when media reports of suicide increase, and the same happens when a particular suicide is treated prominently... When a particular method of suicide is described in detail, copycat suicides often follow,” Jamieson writes. “Research suggests that inadvertently romanticizing suicide or idealizing those who take their own lives by portraying suicide as a heroic or romantic act is problematic as well.”
I am the last person to advocate any form of press censorship, self-imposed or otherwise. But given the demand and new diversity in the booming education sector, now is a good time for reporters, schools and police to proceed with care and caution. Jamieson, for example, advises against getting into very gory details, to refrain from turning news reports into “how-to” guides. She also cautions against inferring that the deceased were happy and healthy individuals until they decided to take their lives.
In the flurry of suicides reported last month, the implication seems to be that the only release from India’s repressive exam culture (which itself warrants more coverage than through the lens of suicide) is to kill oneself. To a teenager with suicidal tendencies, the idea dangles as escape.
Only a sick person would think so, you say. Exactly.
Yet, we still blame exams or their poor parents and teachers?
Granted, the system is flawed. “Newspapers are often full of lists of children who have topped board exams,” notes Vandita Dubey, a psychologist. “But no one really puts up lists of children who have excelled at sports or writing or singing.”
Another danger, cautions Rukmini Pillai, who leads a self-help group for families grappling with mental illness, is that the hyped-yet-shallow nature of coverage lends itself to parents missing the true signs of depression versus simple stress.
“They’re highly educated, poorly informed,” she says. “Reasons are dismissed as stress, not depression. When depression is mentioned, it is as though someone with depression has to die.”
News organizations, police officers and schools must examine their approaches to disseminating information on suicide. This quiet, peaceful purgatory between exams and results is a good place to start.
Your comments are welcome at widerangle@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 03 2008. 10 09 PM IST
More Topics: Exam | Stress | Depression | Suicide | Journalism |