Journalistic appeals to authority: the CPA’s media guidelines are not based in reality; so why should reporters take them seriously?

This article from the Canadian Press is a typical Daddy Knows Best piece about the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) issuing news guidelines on how reporters ought to be discussing suicide. I have many issues with both how the article was done — and the place of an organization to pontificate on something that is not in their scope, namely information dissemination:

“One of the things we really want to encourage journalists to do is to provide that context and to make sure that people are aware that there’s no reason that people have to die from suicide,” said Dr. Mark Sinyor, lead author of the recommendations. 

And yet, with doctor assisted suicide, that is precisely what patients are telling their physicians: that they are too sick to live. This statement is one of those blanket statements that makes assumptions about those who make a conscious decision to end their lives, those covering those events and issues, and the reason a public may need to know about these events.

And this quote is interesting:

“And on the rare instances in which it happens, it’s a tragic missed opportunity to have gotten help.”


You do not know that. The individual may have gotten help numerous times, from friends, family, their doctors, employers, and others. To assume that someone who chooses to end their lives didn’t have an opportunity to receive help is a hurtful assumption. I have known people who have ended their lives, and I would say most of those people had not only many opportunities to get help, they took those opportunities to be helped. They went to therapy, made fundamental changes from moving to another country to changing their friends or even careers, took medications, went to support groups, were honest with a family who supported them…and it didn’t produce that magic solution.

I have even known people who sacrificed their own lives to, in essence, be round-the-clock caregivers to people who were suicidal, and ultimately, it didn’t work. The ABC After School Special Hypothesis is something that has no place in those who deal in the reality business, and for such a quote to be uttered, is mystifying.

The assumption that years of people actively working to save someone is going to be undermined by a news story about someone who took their own lives is mere conjecture.

And this assumption actually puts the blame of someone taking their lives squarely on the family. If they only did enough…

In other words, even people who are experts in a field may have blinders that prevent them from seeing reality.

But the Canadian Press piece is not as thorough as it first appears in other regards. This is a standard press release regurgitation, and it is pretty much is just appealing to the CPA without asking a single hard question on its own.

Right off the bat, the first example discussed is celebrity suicide, which isn’t a common news story, and it is not the sort of news that is going to make the have impact than when let’s say, a not-famous teenager takes her own life because of cyber-bullying.

Most people aren’t celebrities, and most people will not have their PR flunky give a press release cleaning up all of the gory details and issue a clinical press release. It’s more important to know how to cover someone without those protections than those who have armies of publicists managing the optics.

Most likely, the person in question will be an average Joe or Jane with parents, a spouse, and children who do not have anyone who knows how to navigate with the media. They will be overwhelmed, and will not have someone paid and detached person dealing with the media.

But that an organization that makes a decree is troubling on many levels. That’s not their job to dictate media coverage. It is no outside organization’s place to do so because they are a collective, and collectives such as those may have vested interests in wanting to shape coverage — or they may have their own troubles that journalists should expose, not be taken with their titles.

That is extremely arrogant and presumptuous for any institution to issue guidelines to the press. It is not their place.

They are not journalists. They are not editors. They are psychologists, and they would not like it if journalists started issuing guidelines on how to do their jobs. I do not care that the CPA has done this in the past. It is time for it to stop and the profession should have had their own internal ways of doing this a long time ago.

That is appealing to authority. If you are going to have guidelines, you would need those who understand both realms intimately. It is bad enough when an administration issues unworkable decrees to front line workers, let alone an outside organization.

That is one big reason I advocate that journalists had a solid background in psychology — so that they can adapt one skill set with the other in the way they need to do it on an instinctual level. An outsider’s script cannot take all variables into consideration, particularly when journalism is about being objectively critical of all organizations, including the CPA.

These guideline are not helpful because of its pontifical meddling without context. There is no understanding of the basic function of journalism, a profession that should not be in the business of social engineering. They are in the business to inform.

Besides, as Canada now has assisted suicide, these guidelines ignore that kind of suicide, and yet that’s precisely what it is.

Each case is different than the others. There can be no sweeping rules or guidelines in how to cover such events. You do not spin narrative. You do not sugarcoat anything. You do not judge. You do not over-report unnecessary details. You are mindful that the deceased has a family in mourning, but you are also mindful that your job is to inform the public of the things they need to know, not the gossip they may want to know.

The guidelines are not mindful of the profession, but there is also this questionable piece of “proof”:

For instance, a recent study found that after widespread media reports about the suicide of actor-comedian Robin Williams in 2014, there was a significant jump in self-inflicted deaths among the populace in the U.S.

This is a classic case of jumping to a conclusion without actually looking at an alternative explanation. How do we actually know there is an actual uptick in actual suicides?

The truth is, we don’t.

Perhaps these researchers miss the painfully obvious: when a report of a suicide from a celebrity is made known, the stigma of suicide lowers in the public mind, and people are more likely to admit a deceased loved one did take his or her own life, rather than try to cover it up by labelling it a heart attack, accident, or an overdose.

So now what we have is a more accurate tally of people who took their own lives. Once the news fades, the stigma returns, and far from it being a bad thing to report on what happened — it forces us to face reality as it is.

The “lemming” theory of suicide is not bullet-proof, as even the mythology of lemmings jumping over cliffs has long been proven false.

So the CPA really should butt out. These guidelines are horrendous and shallow — and will most likely be used twenty years from now how out-of-touch organizations were to reality, mostly because they are not backed by any direct studies tailor-made for the communications industries.

And that people in journalists blindly accept them without reservation shows precisely empirical journalism is desperately needed, and the sooner, the better.

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