Skip to main content

What media got wrong on Robin Williams' suicide

By Paul Farmer, Special to CNN
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There have been many news reports on actor Robin Williams since his death this week
  • Paul Farmer says reports of shock and disbelief moved on to salacious speculation
  • Farmer says media in the UK gave unnecessary detail about the manner of his death
  • Journalists need to take into account the impact their reporting can have, he says

Editor's note: Paul Farmer is chief executive of the mental health charity, Mind. He is also chair of the NHS England Mental Health Patient Safety Board, an advisor to the Catholic Bishops on mental health and was on the Metropolitan Police commission on mental health and policing. He is a trustee at the Mental Health Providers Forum and at Lloyds Banking Foundation and is an elected member of the ACEVO board. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN) -- The tragic death of much loved actor and comedian Robin Williams took the world by surprise. There has been a steady stream of news reports -- at first conveying shock and disbelief then, disappointingly, moving on to salacious speculation about the cause and method of his death.

Media coverage of mental health and suicide has come a long way over the last few years however, on this occasion; many newspapers got it badly wrong. In Britain, some journalists went too far and breached the Editors' Code, the ethical standard on press reporting that states that "when reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used."

Paul Farmer, Mind
Paul Farmer, Mind

Many of the tabloids and online reports gave unnecessary detail. Part of the reason is that the U.S. police spokesperson put into the public domain far more detail than would be the norm in the UK, Australia or New Zealand.

When explicit descriptions which illustrate the method used are put in the public domain we know that this can have devastating consequences and lead to acts of imitation. There have been many research studies presenting evidence for this and the tragic events in Bridgend should have been a valuable lesson for the media in the need for safe reporting.

When a media report describes clear details of unusual methods of suicide and essentially gives a "how to" guide -- the danger is it can make suicide seem like a more accessible action to take.

Opinion: Why Williams lost to depression

Robin Williams will be honored during Monday's Emmy telecast with a tribute led by friend Billy Crystal, who hosted the "Comic Relief" benefits with Williams and Whoopi Goldberg (seen here in 1986). Williams died August 11 at age 63. Click through to see moments from the beloved actor's remarkable life: Robin Williams will be honored during Monday's Emmy telecast with a tribute led by friend Billy Crystal, who hosted the "Comic Relief" benefits with Williams and Whoopi Goldberg (seen here in 1986). Williams died August 11 at age 63. Click through to see moments from the beloved actor's remarkable life:
Comedic actor Robin Williams dies
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Robin Williams dies Photos: Robin Williams dies
'Happy Days' star remembers Williams
The best Robin Williams tributes
The pain behind Robin Williams' punchlines

The media also oversimplified the reasons Williams took his own life -- for example highlighting money problems -- when we know that there is no one reason people choose to take their lives. The reasons are varied and complex.

Concerning too is the effect that wall-to-wall media coverage about a celebrity suicide can have on the public. However unintentionally, it can appear to glamorize and romanticize the incident. One of the most well documented examples of the copycat effect of a celebrity suicide was that of Marilyn Monroe. During the month of her suicide in August 1962 there were an additional 303 suicides, an increase of 12%.

Suicide is a sensitive and complicated subject which affects a huge number of people. This is why, when news of Robin Williams' death first broke, we issued a briefing to all newsdesks which provided advice on how to report suicide in a sensitive, and responsible, way.

We followed it up with a second briefing the next afternoon. We urged journalists to consult Samaritans media guidelines, this resource has been produced in conjunction with journalists and has been welcomed by editors.

While we appreciate journalists have a hugely difficult task presenting breaking news to readers quickly and concisely against increasingly tight deadlines, accuracy and sensitivity cannot take a back seat. When journalists are writing pieces they should always consider the impact that the tone, content, prominence and imagery of their story will have on their audience.

Opinion: Suicide doesn't set you free

I have been asked a lot over the last few days why certain aspects of a death by suicide should not be reported. In short it's to keep people, who may be struggling with their mental health, safe. We know that around 6,000 people take their own life every year in the UK, and thousands more will attempt suicide, seriously contemplate it and battle mental health problems.

When done correctly, media coverage can be incredibly powerful in helping people to seek support and advice. It can also contribute towards changing public attitudes towards mental health problems and reducing the stigma that sadly still exists.

We are hopeful that there is willingness in the media industry to listen and act on the concerns raised by the mental health charities, experts and their own audiences. Social media is giving readers a voice like never before and editors now know quickly when they are out of step with the public mood. We believe we can work collaboratively with the media to make mental health and suicide reporting safe.

The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT