Reporting suicide: how not to kill your readers

Yesterday, as I went to work, news broke that actor and comedian Robin Williams had been found dead in his flat in a suspected suicide. Today, as I woke up, the UK newspaper front pages were being released on Twitter.

The Sun and the Metro have decided to go with details of how Robin Williams killed himself, while the Mail and the Mirror focussed on the reasons why. (The Mail Online goes into excruciating detail on the methods Williams used, but does so in the body copy of an article.) All four are cheerfully ignoring the Samaritan’s guidelines on media reporting of suicide, which cite evidence that “Vulnerable individuals may be influenced to engage in imitative behaviours by reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensationalist and/or explicitly describes the method of suicide.”

Let’s be clear, this is not a hypothetical danger: a review of almost 100 studies worldwide has found a strong, coherent and consistent association between certain types of media reporting and increased risk of suicide in vulnerable people, and the Bridgend suicides should be known by every UK journalist as an example of how the media can make things worse.

This is happening in the UK, where funding is being stripped from already-stretched mental health services at the same time as punitive welfare policies strip money from the poorest and force severely unwell people to attempt to work despite disabilities that make it impossible for them to do so safely. A population that is already incredibly vulnerable is being made more so by lack of access to treatment and to funds. The UK is currently in the grip of an acute mental health crisis. This context is important.

The reason the media isn’t supposed to talk about methods used is because that knowledge can turn someone who is passively suicidal into someone with an active plan. Knowing the distances dropped, the ligatures used, the medication taken, the blades employed, all of these things can give a suicidal person the knowledge of how to actually do the deed, how to go about taking their thoughts from the realm of the hypothetical into the realm of the real.

Of course, if they want, they can just Google that information, but that requires an act of will on their part; there’s a barrier that acts as another check, a moment where someone might look at what they are doing and consider other possibilities. Google also places helpline numbers prominently in its search results, which is more than some media manages in its reporting. (Side note: there is a story to be written about what changed in September 2010.) Plastering that knowledge all over every newspaper someone sees on their walk to work, in their local supermarket, in their train carriage, negates that barrier completely. It says: here is how you successfully kill yourself.

Even if they don’t contain step-by-step instructions on how to kill yourself, a wall of front pages tying suicide to a specific cause lends justification to a suicidal person’s internal logic that says suicide is a rational response. Suicidal thoughts are, for many people, a temporary problem; distracting yourself from them is a valid and sensible response, and sometimes the only way to stop yourself acting on them. It’s hard to maintain that distraction when a celebrity dies in this way; it’s harder still when the media seems to buy into the idea that money troubles, for example, are a reason for suicide. There is, inevitably, a search for meaning, and a desire to rationalise what’s happened, but reductionist and intrusive stories hurt the families of those who have died by telling them, in effect, that there might have been something they could have changed. They also tell suicidal readers that there are good reasons to die, sometimes; they reinforce the grim logic of acute depression. You can do this even with the most gentle, most well-meaning attempts to memorialise someone’s life.

The flip side of the media response is a slew of articles tying Robin Williams’ comedic genius inextricably to his depression and struggles with addiction. But he was brilliant despite his mental illness, not because of it. We search desperately in cases like this for a spark of hope, a positive spin, and find it in “divine madness”: the idea that his genius could only exist alongside his sadness. But without his brilliance, the madness would remain, and without his madness, the brilliance might have shone so much more brightly. You can be a genius without being depressed, and generally those without major chronic illnesses get a lot more done and have longer lives. There is a strange ambiguity about the “divine madness” narrative that feeds in, at lower levels, to anxieties about getting treatment. What if, without the depression, I am no longer me? What if I lose my creative spark? What if I lose the last of what makes life possible?

But the onus is still on us, the mentally ill, to seek treatment despite our (not always unfounded) fears that it might not work and might even harm us. We are told to talk about depression more, when talking is just about the last thing a depressed person wants to or feels able to do, and when most people aren’t interested in listening. We’re told to seek help, when in reality that help is often unavailable. The last time I needed serious therapy, it took 12 months for an appointment to become available; that was before the current crisis. I cannot imagine I would be able to negotiate the barriers to NHS assistance if I were suicidal in London this morning, even in my position of relative wealth, insight and access. But it’s entirely plausible that Robin Williams did manage to get the help he needed, and it just wasn’t enough. It isn’t enough for a lot of people. A lot of people die despite excellent care. We need more research, we need more treatment options, we need a revolution in mental healthcare. What we get are front pages that make our illnesses worse.

Fundamentally, the media doesn’t care about the guidelines. It doesn’t care about the people they’re meant to protect. Mentally ill people who die come in two types: the talented and brilliant, for whom death is an inevitable part of their brilliance, and the poor and underprivileged, whose deaths are irrelevant except where they interact with an existing story. The media doesn’t care about our deaths, unless we’re famous, and then it will pore over every gruesome detail regardless of how that might affect those of us still living, still struggling, still reading the news and still fighting for hope every day. What does it matter, after all, if a few more people succeed in killing themselves in the next few weeks? They were depressed. There was nothing anyone could have done.

Mobile vs desktop: false dichotomies vs the undead

Nieman Lab, off the back of some tweets by Wolfgang Blau, asks whether in the rush to mobile, some news publishers are abandoning desktop too quickly:

It’s a tough balance: On one hand, news sites have a lot of catching up to do on mobile. On the other, desktops and laptops aren’t going away any time soon, at least for one key market segment: people who spend their work days in front of a computer.

Martin Belam picked up on the discussion from the perspective of a publisher who doesn’t rely too much on desktop lunchtime traffic, pointing out that the Mirror is now getting more traffic from mobile every hour of every day than it does from desktop. (I’d like to know what metric that uses, but that’s slightly beside the point.)

There are plenty of publishers for whom mobile is absolutely going to be the most important platform very, very soon, and plenty more for whom it is already. There are also plenty of publishers designing very well for both, creating designs that work whatever size of screen you’re using, and creating journalism that’s easy to discover and use whether you’re on a bus at midnight or at your desk at midday.

Mobile can’t be an afterthought, either editorially or commercially, for a publisher that wants to survive long-term. But it’s not the only platform that matters, just because it’s the newest and the fastest-growing. We’ve seen this sort of rhetoric before. In fact, we see it a lot.

Mobile is to social as desktop is to search. Mobile is to the article page as desktop is to the home page. Just because mobile is ascendant and likely to become dominant doesn’t mean that desktop is going to die completely. The dichotomy is false. You’ve gotta do both.

Or, to put it another way, beware of zombies.

Pocket Lint #17: sublime and/or ridiculous

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The New Yorker’s paywall is down for three months; I have been snacking on their archive in my spare time. Here are 30 things you should read while they’re free, including this extended, excellent version of the 12-inch pianist joke.

Form and its Usurpers: “If like Hegel we are interested in tracing the lineage of ideas we would be remiss to describe the newspaper as the first Rogue-like; we should say instead that Rogue and Spelunky are contemporary examples of the newspaper-like.”

“6:57 p.m. I am still being ignored. I don’t care. This is a standoff. I don’t even WANT mozzarella sticks.”

Why idiots succeed.

“One day at work I fall into brine and they close the lid above me by mistake. Much time passes; it feels like long sleep. When the lid is finally opened, everybody is dressed strange, in colorful, shiny clothes. I do not recognize them. They tell me they are “conceptual artists” and are “reclaiming the abandoned pickle factory for a performance space.” I realize something bad has happened in Brooklyn.

Teh Guardian.

Anti-faces: camouflage from facial recognition technology, with the side-effect of looking both bizarre and very cool.

Women listening to men in Western art history.

“Impostor Syndrome is that voice inside you saying that not everything is as it seems, and it could all be lost in a moment. The people with the problem are the people who can’t hear that voice.”

The sad, strange tale of the tallest woman in the world.

Tumblr of the week: Will it beard?, which answers one of the most difficult questions of our age.

Poem of the week: We Who Are Your Closest Friends, Philip Lopate.

Game of the week: Vessel, a strange short story.

Games journalism is a broken business

There’s been a huge, intricate, messy, interesting conversation on Twitter over the last few days among games writers. It’s been sparked in part* by Maddy Myers’ superb excoriation of the games journalism industry, and the place that freelancers and those peripheral to the few big outlets now occupy, especially minority writers.

I have no idea how anybody else survives in games journalism. Well, actually, I do know now. It’s that other people just get day jobs. They do what I’ve done. If they’re lucky enough to find one that they can do in addition to journalism without wanting to die all the time. Maybe they just give up and get a full-time job that has nothing to do with journalism at all.

It’s a great piece. Go read it. And then go read Jenn Frank, talking about why she writes:

I am answering this question at a strange juncture in my life, you know. I am almost 32, I hope to start a family, I live in a city of 15000 people, and it has become impossible for me to imagine a life where games writing, or any writing, is a real possibility anymore. So now I’ve arrived at a stage in my life where, instead of waking up each morning and picturing what I’ll write, I try to picture *not* writing. Instead, I try to think of, literally, anything else I could be capable of doing.

These are brilliant women, writing about how writing has become impossible for them because it does not sustain them as a career. The conversations on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere are all about the money: there’s not enough to go around. Publishers don’t pay enough for writers to actually do the work, especially for freelancers; staff jobs tend to go to the people who can produce a lot of words for very little cash consistently, and those people don’t tend to be established games critics. They certainly don’t tend to be minority critics whose public work intersects with social justice issues.

Most of these people don’t believe, on any level, that they’re owed work. But they do believe – with justification - that they’re owed a fair price for the value of their work, which is specialised and difficult and time-consuming. They don’t need to pitch more, they need to be paid properly for the pitches they land. They don’t need bootstraps, they need a fair system.

There isn’t enough money. But that construction elides the fact that publishers aren’t making enough money, which elides the fact that journalism’s business model on the internet is completely broken and games outlets are struggling just as hard as everyone else when it comes to actually making money from the online economy.

It’s hard, as a business, to admit that your commercial team isn’t operating well with the realities of the internet. But for many journalism businesses it’s the truth: newspapers and magazines alike are struggling, and specialist and enthusiast subject publishing as much as generalist. It’s not just that print revenues are falling, for those businesses with a print arm; it’s also that the link between increased online readership and increased revenue is incredibly tenuous if you’re relying on traditional banner ads, particularly if they’re all served through Google.

It’s possible to make money online, even in the middle of all this disruption. But the sad fact is that most games publishers are not very good at it, and they pass on their commercial failures to their writers, because that’s the part of the business that can be squeezed the most without squealing.

There isn’t a simple solution, because it’s a systemic problem, and because if there was a simple solution then the problem would already be solved. The low pay and precarious situations of games freelancers mirrors freelance journalists in most consumer-driven niches, all trying to tackle the biggest upheaval in publishing since publishing became a thing. No one in publishing has the answers, here. Games journalism doesn’t even seem to be able to articulate the problem: the race to the bottom for writers is driven by lack of revenue and lack of innovative commercial approaches, at least as much as it’s driven by writers willing to write for free.

One truth remains: if you can’t afford to pay writers what they’re worth, then you’re not making enough money; that problem lies with you, not with the writers.

* Edit: @RowanKaiser points out on Twitter that @KrisLigman’s tweets and his own blog post announcing his Patreon came ahead of @samusclone’s piece, saying “I think what happened was that several simmering pots boiled over concurrently”.

Pocket Lint #12: service industry

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This title doesn’t work, but you’ll click on it anyway.

“Really, freedom of speech is beside the point. Facebook and Twitter want to be the locus of communities, but they seem to blanch at the notion that such communities would want to enforce norms—which, of course, are defined by shared values rather than by the outer limits of the law.”

The only way to keep user information safe is not to store it.

Relevant to the Assassin’s Creed: Unity controversy this week over the lack of women: “what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?”

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you’d do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it.”

On Matter, here’s an incredibly long interview with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti, which you won’t read. On sites that aren’t Matter, here are a couple of good summaries, which you probably will. Serve your readers, or they’ll go elsewhere.

Tumblr of the week: When Women Refuse

Poem of the week: And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

Free game of the week: The Last Tango

 

The New York Times package mapper

From Nieman Lab, an interesting look at how the NYT maps traffic between stories, and analyses why and how things are providing onward traffic or causing people to click away from the site.

000000;">One example has been in our coverage of big news events, which we tend to blanket with all of the tools at our disposal: articles (both newsy and analytical) as well as a flurry of liveblogs, slideshows, interactive features, and video. But we can’t assume that readers will actually consume everything we produce. In fact, when we looked at how many readers actually visited more than a single page of related content during breaking news the numbers were much lower than we’d anticipated. Most visitors read only one thing.

This tool’s been used to make some decisions and change stories, individually, to improve performance in real time. That’s the acid test of tools like this – do they actually get used?

But the team that uses it is the data team, not the editorial team – yet. Getting editors to use it regularly is, it seems, about changing these data-heavy visualisations into something editors are already used to seeing as part of their workflow:

we’re thinking about better ways to automatically communicate these insights and recommendations in contexts that editors are already familiar with, such as email alerts, instant messenger chat bots, or perhaps something built directly into our CMS.

It’s not just about finding the data. It’s also about finding ways to use it and getting it to the people best placed to do so in forms that they actually find useful.

Happy birthday, Guardian Australia

Tea, cake and champagne for the Guardian Australia launch.

About this time last year, I think someone had broken out the champagne. Not that that meant we stopped working, of course – it just joined the cups of tea and chocolate echidnas (echidnae?) that Penny bought to celebrate launch. We started very, very early and finished very, very late, and it was worth every minute.

Today is a year since Guardian Australia launched, and it has been an incredible year professionally (as well as all that boring personal stuff about finding a new home 10,000 miles away from home). My instinct when it comes to explaining why is to go to the stats – to turn to what we know about our new audiences, the people who found us on launch day and the people who’ve discovered us since. We can bring out commercial and editorial numbers that prove the impact we’ve had and the appetite for our work in Australia, which has completely eclipsed what I thought it might a year ago today. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story – they don’t cover the stories we’ve broken, the speed at which the office has grown, or the way our audience has formed a community around our journalism.

With tons of help from colleagues, I compiled a huge awards list for the anniversary, and it acts as a look back at some of the highs and lows of the year. It’s long, but there are probably at least twice as many things I could have included, if I had enough time to put it together (and thought people would still be interested at the end of it). As it is, it stands as a little marker of what we’ve managed to do in the last year – and my favourite part is, by far, the comment thread underneath. There’s our biggest achievement - that after a year, we have readers who’ll reply to our birthday celebrations to say: “Thank you for being here. Please stay.”

“Content” is contentious

Via Adam Tinworth (who seems to agree that I should be shorter), a note on content:

2b2b2b;">Content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! What great content.” Nobody who produces meaningful artistic expression thinks of themselves as content producers either. So the first step to becoming a successful publisher is to start treating creative work with the respect it deserves.

Generally, people don’t react well to the word content, especially people who are doing the work that makes that “content” valuable. Editors, journalists, reporters, writers, video producers and interactive developers don’t want to hear their work levelled in the way that “content” somehow manages to do. No one asks if it’s good content; they care if it’s a good story, a good video, good journalism. Content puts people’s backs up, because it devalues their creative efforts and reduces an article, a photo, a piece of hard work, to merely the fact of its existence. It’s about as insulting as calling it “URLs”.

Every day, at work, I write emails that require a collective term for text articles, image galleries, videos, interactives and perhaps a few other things too. I call them journalism, or pieces, or work, or news, or in extreme cases when I’ve exhausted every other synonym I list them as articles, images, videos and interactives. Every day, I deliberately avoid using the word “content”, because, as Greg Satell points out, it’s crap.

Being brief

Interesting from Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab on giving reporters the implicit permission to write briefly.

000000;">So I like the idea of giving journalists a structure and permission to share little things — things that don’t need to be expanded into traditional articles, things that can connect a reporter’s knowledge to an audience’s interest without the templatized exoskeleton of modern web publishing.

It’s something I’d like to do more of here – sharing interesting links with a paragraph or two’s analysis. Not everything needs to be short enough to be a tweet or long enough to be a full article. Aside from the issues about it taking all the useful “byproducts” of reporting, as Benton argues, Twitter is a terrible medium for archiving, and not a great one for conversation; if either of those things are important in how you share little things, there are far better options for doing so. Tumblr, for instance.

Conceptualising CMS shortcomings as a “lack of permission” is particularly interesting – reminds me of poetics conversations around line length and form being limited by the size of the notebook or the eventual printed page. Form and content are still married. You can see that too in how hard it is for many news organisations to put up a story that consists only of a single fact. How do you break a single-sentence story in a traditional CMS where headline, intro and article must all say something?