Kate Spade’s Suicide Brings Poor Reporting to Light | Opinion
Media coverage of shootings and suicides typically focus on the perpetrators and the clues, which include prepared videos and notes, as to their motives. In providing a public stage for perpetrators, where most of the attention is on them, the media have been accused of fueling these incidents. When reporting on suicides, such as that of Kate Spade, journalists should refer to their training or ethical guidelines to prohibit a copycat effect .
On Tuesday, June 5, 2018, fashion designer Kate Spade was found dead by suicide in her New York apartment. Spade was discovered by her housekeeper around 10 a.m. She was 55 years old and left behind a husband, Andy Spade, and 13-year-old daughter, Bea.
Nearly all the major news outlets, including CNN, The New York Times, ABC and TMZ, that reported on Spade’s death included graphic details on the method she used. TMZ went as far as to include the content of Spade’s suicide note addressed to her daughter. They also described the color of object she used.
The “Journalists’ Bible,” or the Associated Press Stylebook , clearly states that “suicide stories when written, should not go into detail on methods used.” According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, releasing details on the methods used causes a contagion of suicides. More than 50 studies have been conducted that prove, according to AFSP, “certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.”
After Robins Williams’ suicide in Aug. 2014, rates of suicide increased almost 10 percent. A study by the scientific journal PLOS One found that suicides rose 12.9 percent in men aged 30-44, and a 32 percent increase in the number of deaths by the same method as Williams. According to the study, “extensive media coverage of Williams’ death “might have proved the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the U.S. population—e.g. middle-aged men in despair—to move from suicidal ideation to attempt.”
The chief medical officer of AFSP, Dr. Christine Moutier, said, “The issue is that when others are prone to, especially a high profile person, the way that [suicide] is messaged can lead to a higher risk of suicide contagion, or can conversely lead to prevention effect. Media messaging is known to have a very powerful role.”
In fact, Spade was apparently fixated on the death of Williams and how he killed himself. Her sister, Reta Saffo, recalled Spade’s obsession with his death. “We were freaked out/saddened,” said Saffo . “But she kept watching it and watching it over and over. I think the plan was already in motion even as far back as then.”
Spade’s husband, Andy issued a statement the following day saying that Spade had “suffered from depression and anxiety for many years.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 1 in 5 Americans, about 44.7 million, suffer from a mental illness.
Given the extent of both treated and untreated mental health sufferers in the U.S., journalists must be conscious even of their word choice when reporting. The AP Stylebook urges journalists to avoid using the term ‘committed suicide,’ as the phrasing implies a criminal act. Dr. Moutier also reiterated the importance of avoiding the term ‘committed suicide.’
Journalists must also refrain from using sensationalized headlines merely meant to gain views. A recent TMZ headline included the method Spade used, and another headline detailed what was written in her suicide note. Both stories gathered a total of 621.3 million views since Spade’s death. Headlines like these can trigger readers who struggle with depressive disorders.
According to AFSP, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and for every suicide-related death, 25 Americans attempt it. Thus, to combat suicide attempts, journalists should avoid using terms describing suicide as an “epidemic,” and always include resources for readers those struggling with suicidal thoughts. More importantly, never refer to a suicide as ‘successful’ or ‘failed.’
“We have been a part of several initiatives to partner with media experts, journalists and reporters. For example, we have helped sponsor the Poynter Institute and press conferences on suicide reporting,” said Dr. Moutier. Resources like AFSP and Poynter News University offer tools for journalists. Poynter offers writers a free course on how to safely report on mental illness and suicide. The course is self-paced and can be taken at any time. AFSP provides handouts and educational tools as well.
Spade’s family, along with others family who have lost a loved one to suicide, deserve privacy from the press. One of the codes of ethics for journalism is “to minimize harm.” According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, journalists must “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.”
As the ratings, views and clicks for a story like this goes up, so do copycat suicide attempts. While some suicides like Spade’s may be newsworthy because of her prominence, journalists still have ethical standards to uphold. Reporting and exploiting Spade’s method of suicide does more harm than good.
“Things are changing in the right direction, but it certainly doesn’t happen overnight,” said Dr. Moutier. “We often times see industries change when key individuals have that riveting experience that opens their eyes and takes off their blinders.”