Sunday, November 15, 2015

To report or not to report - the line between 'decision' and 'censorship'

Life is all about choices all the time. And we have rules for making them. Laws, guidelines and unwritten rules.
Much of what we do involves making and breaking them. In journalism, this can take the not so subtle giveaway of valuable gifts highlighted in our 2014 post Quality journalism fringe benefits: Ueber-Shwag. How much of this violated the German Press Association guidelines section 15 on freebies is not always clear, although the blogster considers a TV set a bit much.

In addition to state or national rules, newspapers and other media outlets have their own editorial code, for example, the editorial code of the British The Guardian. That's a fairly extensive one, which also includes a paragraph on reporting on suicide including the number of a suicide hotline to be published with an article.

German outlets are less forthcoming with their guidelines, probably because they have the industry wide press code and prefer to keep anything beyond that to themselves. Among the few exceptions we found is the publisher of the notorious tabloid Bild Zeitung with a handful of political guidelines (such as transatlantic, or opposed to totalitarianism of any stripe).

In the German mainstream media, reporting about suicides appears to be governed by an "unwritten rule", according to this Der Spiegel article on the rhetoric publicity bait by the "anti-islamization" movement PEGIDA, the right wing AfD and others on the right.

That unwritten rule, according to the Spiegel article, goes like this: " general, the media won't report on suicides. Because it only inspires copycats." Known as the Wherther Effect after the suicidal romantic in Goethe's The Sorrows of the Young Wherther.

Confronted with some evidence of the effect, the K-Landnews TheEditor mumbled: "I see, but they have the cause wrong. I don't think these youngsters killed themselves because they felt the deep heartbreak of young Wherther. They may have offed themselves because they could not bear the fact that a German writer could pen something so awful."

Why would a journalist invoke the reporting on suicides in an article about the rhetoric of various right wing outfits?

Because, he says, giving outrageous claims and verbal provocations a media platform by reporting them only emboldens the speakers and writers and begets more of the same.

To the blogster, this seems a bit odd because Der Spiegel in particular picks up every obscure Nazi reference, like the one in which we learned that the number 88 in German can mean something more than 80 plus 8, or 90 minus 2, or 4 * 20 + 8, or whatever mathematical rule you can use to obtain it. 

Nobody forces Der Spiegel to pick up right wing barks with the reliability of one of Pavlov's dogs, or does the blogster not understand something important here?

It's a decision, so man up.

As to not reporting on suicide, that one actually smacks a bit of self censorship. Because, hey, everybody reported on Robin Williams with almost frightening abandon.

But a once-a-year one-pager on the 10 000 or so Germans who kill themselves every year is enough?

That's many times the number of homicide cases in Germany, which was under 3 000 in 2014. And out of that number, almost 50% were merely attempts. The number of 1st degree murder cases in the whole country was 298 in 2014.

Less than 300, that's very likely fewer than you get to see in a single evening on the 80 TV channels an average German household can receive.

Incidentally, the number of attempted suicides is about 100 000 on top the 10K.

Not reporting on this "as a rule" is not smart.

One more thing:
If you feel depressed or suicidal, find your local hotline number and talk to someone.

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