Media reporting of Robin Williams’ suicide
AuthorPirkis, Jane Elizabeth
AffiliationMelbourne School of Population and Global Health
Document TypeMasters Research thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2020 Jane Elizabeth Pirkis
Background Irresponsible media reporting of suicide can lead to suicidal acts, particularly if the subject of the reporting is a celebrity. When Robin Williams took his own life on 11 August 2014, media reporting in the United States was less than optimal, with many reports detailing the suicide method Williams used, romanticising his suicide, and failing to provide information on sources of help. The reporting was followed by an increase in suicides in the United States, as well as an increase in helpline calls. In Australia, the Mindframe guidelines provide media professionals with advice on ways to safely report on suicide. This thesis set out to determine whether the Australian reporting of Williams’ suicide adhered to the recommendations in the Mindframe guidelines and whether there were increases in suicides or calls to helplines in Australia following the media reporting of Williams’ suicide. Method The thesis involved three studies. In Study 1, relevant newspaper articles were identified through a systematic search process, and trained coders rated the articles for quality against criteria in the Mindframe guidelines. In Study 2, suicide data were extracted from the National Coronial Information System for the period 2001 to 2016 and interrupted time series regression analyses were conducted to determine whether there were changes in the number of suicides in the five month period immediately following Williams’ suicide. In Study 3, weekly calls data for the period 2013 to 2015 were provided by Australia’s two most prominent helplines, Lifeline and Beyond Blue. Again, interrupted time series regression analyses were conducted, this time to determine whether there was an increase in the average weekly number of calls received by each helpline one week and one month after the news of Williams’ suicide broke. Results Study 1 identified 303 newspaper articles, 67% of which adhered to at least eight of the 10 Mindframe guidelines. Study 2 found an 11% increase in suicides in the five month period following Williams’ death, largely accounted for by men aged 30-64 years and by people who died by hanging (the method Williams used). Study 3 provided strong evidence of an increase in calls to Lifeline and Beyond Blue in the week after Williams’ suicide was reported. This levelled out over the ensuing month. Conclusion Australian newspaper reporting of Williams’ suicide was largely consistent with the Mindframe guidelines. Despite this, there were increases in suicides in the immediate aftermath of his death, which is obviously a negative outcome. There were also increases in calls to helplines, which may be interpreted either as negative (i.e., suggesting that people’s levels of distress and feelings of suicidality were heightened) or positive (i.e., suggesting that people who might have otherwise been influenced to harm themselves called a helpline instead). It may be that Australians were exposed to reports that contravened safe reporting recommendations, particularly via overseas media and social media or that some Australian reports may have had unhelpful overarching narratives, despite largely adhering to the Mindframe guidelines. The Mindframe guidelines constitute international best practice but consideration should be given to whether certain recommendations within them should be further reinforced and whether more nuanced information about how stories should be framed could be provided.
KeywordsRobin Williams; Suicide; Media; Reporting
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