TAIWAN: Media blasted for suicide reporting

Critics warn that positive portrayal of a recent tragedy leads to an increase in suicide rates

Taipei Times
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The media frenzy over the suicide of veteran comedian and actor Ni Min-jan romanticized the tragedy and could lead to a jump in suicides among the general public, a media watchdog group and health experts warned yesterday.

The Media Monitor Alliance, the Taipei Lifeline Association and the Health Life Alliance expressed strong concerns about the possible damage wrought by reporting of the suicide during a forum yesterday.

"The media hype on Ni's suicide has overwhelmed the public with clear pictures of his body and detailed descriptions of the suicide method. If the media continues to ignore what is in the viewers' interests, then the government should come forward and stop them," alliance secretary-general Connie Lin said.

Lu Shu-yu, secretary-general of the Health Life Alliance, said research conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in over 20 countries suggests that mishandled reporting on suicide cases causes "suicide clusters."

"Many countries have regulations for the reporting of suicides. In South Korea, for example, the news media cannot reveal the name of the drug in drug-related suicide stories. I think this is a necessary measure for improving media self-restraint and preventing people from imitating methods used in suicide," Lu said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorized seven types of reporting on suicide that can cause suicide clusters, including simplifying the causes of suicide, repetitive reporting, description of methods of suicide and romanticizing the dead, Lu said.

Local media coverage of Ni's suicide fell into all seven categories, as well as dabbling in superstitious themes.

According to a media study conducted by the Media Monitor Alliance between May 1 and May 8, Ni's suicide had taken up more than 100 minutes of all news coverage on CTI TV, TVBS-N and ETtoday during that period.

The groups worried that the media's ignorance of responsibilities and lack of self-restraint would cause considerable damage to the mental health of the public.

"When the famous writer Sanmao committed suicide about 15 years ago, some reporters called to ask me about possible suicide cluster effects that could be caused by her suicide. Fifteen years later, I see almost no media outlets voicing such concerns following Ni's suicide," said Hsu Wen-yao, secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of Clinical Psychology.

Hsu said media indifference to negative influences on the public had damaged suicide-prevention efforts, the focus of which lies in the reconstruction of positive and close relationships.

Chang Chueh, an associate professor in women's studies at National Taiwan University and a council member of the World Federation for Mental Health, urged the Department of Health to be more active in improving preventive measures when addressing mental health.

Minister of Health Hou Sheng-mou pledged to establish a national suicide prevention center within six months during a legislative question-and-answer session two days ago.

"For the media's part, we demand that print and broadcast media stop the ferocious coverage of Ni's suicide and provide helpful resources for people who want to seek help for their mental problems," Chang said.

The frenzy started on May 2, when Ni was found dead in a mountainous area near Toucheng in Ilan County after being reported missing for more than two weeks.

In addition to investigating the cause of Ni's suicide and the alleged relationships between Ni, Ni's wife and Chinese actress Xia Yi, the media covered the funeral and screened tribute programs.