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Warning: This contribution discusses suicide

Until the advent of radio and television, there was no real concept of “breaking news.” The immediacy of broadcast media allowed news providers to inform the public quickly of something they needed or wanted to know. And as broadcasting became the preferred conduit for news, a problem presented itself to journalists: How much of what they were reporting on the fly was true and relevant? This was not as much of a problem for print journalism, which by necessity required more time and deliberation, but now that reporters are practically able to report the news “as it’s happening,” to use the cliche, ethical obstacles have emerged.

These obstacles were in plain sight during the initial reporting of the death of Haruma Miura on July 18. The popular 30-year-old actor was found unresponsive in his home in Tokyo and brought to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. News reports said police believed Miura had killed himself.

Television reported Miura’s death as breaking news, with details varying from one report to another. The World Health Organization has formulated guidelines for media professionals, advising them on how to cover suicide, saying that “sensationalizing” such news should be avoided at all costs. News outlets should not mention the method of suicide, and graphic or written representations of where the suicide took place should be avoided. The purpose is to avoid triggering despair among at-risk members of the public, since there is evidence that suicide coverage, especially when it involves famous people, can lead to more suicides.

According to Sophia University professor and former TV director Hiroaki Mizushima in a July 21 article posted on Yahoo News, some TV stations followed the guidelines while others didn’t. Tokyo Broadcasting System’s July 18 coverage was particularly problematic. TBS included the word “suicide” in the on-screen chyron during the report, and mentioned the method of suicide in both the report and the chyron.

That night, according to Mizushima, suicide prevention organizations sent messages to media companies, including newspapers and public broadcaster NHK, asking them to adhere to the guidelines. By the next day, some were heeding the message. Nippon TV’s Sunday night news program was notably cautious in its coverage of Miura’s death, and did not “emphasize” the word “suicide”; nor did it mention the way he died. On Monday, however, with news outlets unrestrained by weekend programming limitations, the airwaves were filled with news of Miura’s death thanks to the ubiquitous information “wide shows,” which lean toward celebrity stories. Whatever specific network news coverage traits were apparent over the weekend were compounded on the first weekday following Miura’s death. Mizushima surveyed all the major stations and found that content on Nippon TV and TV Asahi, by and large, stuck to the guidelines. TBS, on the other hand, complied with the guidelines in its news programming, but not so much on its wide shows. Fuji TV’s content was even more of a problem. Although the network’s news and wide shows did include information about consultation assistance for at-risk viewers per the guidelines, the stories themselves traded in aspects of suicide coverage that WHO tries to discourage, including talking to fans of Miura who went to his home after learning of his death.

Another Yahoo News article featured an interview with Akiko Mura, who has worked as a volunteer suicide prevention counselor for 20 years. Mura says that when she heard of Miura’s death she instantly felt uneasy, since she was afraid the media would reveal too much. As she followed the coverage she realized that many media outlets were not properly observing the WHO guidelines as prescribed by Japan’s health ministry.

“Even though Miura was a famous person,” Mura says, “it is not appropriate” to publicize details of his death. To reporters, especially those who cover show business, the fact that the public wants to know the details of a star’s death supersedes public health considerations. Journalists insist they serve the public, and so try to provide the information the public demands. This philosophy makes sense in the realm of public policy and general news, but turns slippery when it comes to a subject’s personal life. Miura, by dint of being a celebrity, had acquired a status that made his life fair game, according to the thinking of many news outlets. The guidelines for suicide reporting are measured by journalists who weigh them against the subject’s public profile.

This dilemma becomes acute with the passage of time, since, due to the subject’s fame, the “why” of their death is more of an issue for the public than the “how.” So even if news outlets follow the guidelines in terms of reporting the particulars of a person’s death in order to avoid triggering suicidal impulses, the general public’s desire to know the reasons for that person’s death could eventually lead to the disclosure of information that may also have a triggering effect.

Sometimes, however, the results can arguably be seen to be beneficial. Follow-up reports on the May suicide of professional wrestler Hana Kimura revealed that her own despair was perhaps partly caused by decisions made by the producers of a reality TV series she was appearing in at the time of her death. Such information could conceivably lead to the discontinuation of certain TV production techniques associated with these kinds of tragedies.

As Takayuki Harada, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, pointed out in an article in Gendai Business, Japan has seen fewer suicides over the years partially due to a change in values. Celebrities no longer have the kind of power over the public imagination they once did, and so an incident such as Miura’s death doesn’t cause the same kind of destructive reaction.

However, it all depends on the actions of the media, which has a great responsibility in the matter. The fact that Gendai Business posted Harada’s article on July 18, the day of Miura’s death, would seem to indicate that some media, at least, are taking that responsibility seriously.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. For those in other countries, visit https://bit.ly/Suicide-Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

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