Archive for January, 2008

Social networking, suicide, and the power of imitation

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It took a long time, but in 2006, after being shown compelling evidence about the link between media portrayals of suicide and ‘copycat’ suicides, newspapers agreed to be more restrained in their coverage.

‘When reporting suicide,’ the newspapers’ editorial code now reads ‘care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.’

Yet, just as the newspapers decided to show more self-restraint, people were given free rein to show and share as much as they wanted via the internet.

There may be no link between the suicides of seven young people in Bridgend, but given the findings of past research, the new taskforce that has been set up to investigate possible connections between the deaths needs to spend some time looking at the role of social networking sites and memorial sites like GoneTooSoon.

The evidence linking media coverage and suicide was collected together and discussed at length by the Oxford Centre for Suicide Research in 2003 (summarised here).

When newspapers covered suicides in graphic detail – particularly those of celebrities – over two thirds of the research studies found that the number of suicides went up. ‘In 21 [of 30 studies] there was evidence of an increase in suicides after the [newspaper] reports, with 10 of these also finding evidence of a causal link between the reported suicide(s) and those occurring following the report.’

For television news the evidence was even starker. ‘Of 13 studies of television news reports of suicides on at least two of three national TV networks in the USA,’ Professor Keith Hawton’s research showed, ‘an increase in suicide rates was found after the reports in 10 of the studies.’ And it wasn’t just from news reports, fictional representations of suicide in dramas and soap operas sparked increases as well.

In his conclusion Hawton could not have been clearer about his findings. ‘Media reporting or portrayal of suicides can influence suicidal behaviour, leading to: Increases in the overall number of suicides; [and] Increases in the use of particular methods of suicide’.

Melanie Davies, the mother of one of the young men who killed himself in Bridgend, was quoted in the Guardian as saying “It’s like a craze – a stupid sort of fad. They all seem to want to be copying each other by wanting to die”.

Academic research suggests she may well be right. It also suggests that media may have played a large part in their decisions. What can be done about this – and particularly about self-published media on the net – is a very difficult question, but one we need to ask to help avoid a repeat of the tragedy at Bridgend.

Written by Martin Moore

January 23rd, 2008 at 5:36 pm

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New Media Standards Trust website – tell us what you think

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For instant judgement stand up comedy is probably your best bet. Get up on stage, make a joke or tell a story, and you’ll find out pretty quickly if the audience finds you funny or not.

Theatre’s probably next best for audience reaction, though the response is almost certainly a little more muted than for live comedy.

Launching a website, on the other hand, is pretty far down the list. You design it, build it, and then release it to the world with a… click. No applause, no laughter, just the hum of a few servers somewhere.

Still, it’s better than telly. At least you can see who’s taking a look, where they’re coming from, what they’re looking at, and how long they’re staying. And, if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll leave a comment – a quick word of encouragement, a constructive criticism, a long list of links that aren’t working.

So here’s a request. Whether you want to give us chapter and verse on what you think, or you just want to have a quick snoop about, come and have a look at the new Media Standards Trust website which has launched at www.mediastandardstrust.org.

You’re welcome to leave comments on this blog, or directly on the site (I’ll pick them up either way).

Written by Martin Moore

January 21st, 2008 at 2:58 pm

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A Strange Silence About an Even Stranger Death

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Why has the liberal media been so dismissive of people asking questions about the death of Dr David Kelly?

Although Norman Baker’s suggestions about how Kelly died are far-fetched, and his theory that the doctor was murdered by Iraqi exiles lacks substance, the doubts he raises about the manner of death are both convincing and supported by evidence. Indeed having read Baker’s book (‘The Strange Death of David Kelly’) it’s hard not to wonder why the authorities are so reluctant to reopen the inquiry into Kelly’s death.

Kelly was supposed to have died through loss of blood after having cut his wrists, and from an overdose of copraxamol. Yet the lack of blood on the scene, the failure of Kelly to cut major arteries, the lack of any fingerprints on the knife (when Kelly wasn’t wearing gloves), and the very limited levels of copraxamol in his stomach, all strongly suggest that he did not die the way Hutton said he did.

Moreover, since Hutton cut the coronor’s inquest short and failed to call many witnesses, there are an awful lot of questions that remain unanswered.

And yet if you look at the coverage of Baker’s book in the liberal media, and at how his doubts are dismissed, you’d be forgiven for assuming he was just another far out conspiracy theorist. Most papers bar the Mail and Telegraph ignored Baker’s evidence in their news pages. David Norton-Taylor reviewed the book for the Guardian yet focused on the lack of evidence for murder rather the plethora of evidence showing he did not die as the inquiry said he did. In The Times David Aaronovitch went as far as to suggest Baker try swallowing copraxamol and cutting his wrists himself to see how he got on.

When the Lords discussed Baker’s evidence last week, three cross bench peers called on the government to re-open the inquiry and conduct a proper investigation into the cause of death. Not a single national paper mentioned their calls. In the House itself, Lord Hunt rejected them out of hand and brushed off the Liberal Democrat MP’s book as ‘a good Christmas read’.

Why has the media – particularly the liberal press – been so happy to write off Baker’s questions? Isn’t the suspicious death of a key government weapons advisor in the lead up to the Iraq war more interesting – and more in the public interest – than the disappearance of a 4 year old girl in Portugal?

One can understand why the BBC would feel hamstrung and unable to dredge up all the details of the case but the Guardian? The Independent? The FT? Sky? Perhaps Hutton queered the pitch for all of them. Maybe going back to his death brings up bad memories.

It’s a shame though, because without further investigation others will come up with even more outlandish theories about his demise.

Written by Martin Moore

January 18th, 2008 at 3:28 pm

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A new founding principle for the BBC

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Fantastic. A proper thoughtful speech about politics, the media and the role of the BBC from Mark Thompson – the BBC’s Director General (‘The Trouble with Trust’).

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m impressed is that I’ve been banging on about many of the same issues for a while now. Indeed, for the last couple of months I’ve been on a road trip telling anyone who will listen (BBC included) that news organisations are changing fundamentally, that the Fourth Estate is under threat, and that the only news organisation with the scale and remit to take the lead in doing something about it is the BBC.

One aspect of his speech particularly struck me. Thompson did not just outline what he saw as the problems with democratic engagement (including a healthy dose of scepticism about the value of scepticism) he also had a go at suggesting a way forward. This included transforming “the way we [the BBC] connect British democracy – and all its many democratic institutions – to the public”.

This is important. It means, in effect, adding a fourth pillar – ‘to connect’ – to the BBC’s famous founding principles – to inform, educate and entertain’. I’m not sure I like the verb Thompson’s used – I’d probably go with ‘to engage’ or ‘to include’ rather than ‘to connect’, but the concept is right. Only by including the public in a reconstituted Fourth Estate can we hope to sustain and renew it.

Thompson then talked about what this might mean in practice, for example, giving the public “Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them”. Much, in other words, of what mySociety has started to do through www.theyworkforyou.com, and some of it’s other excellent websites.

Indeed it sounded like organisations like mySociety – and, I hope, Media Standards Trust – inspired this part of Thompson’s speech. Which appeared to be confirmed by Thompson’s comment at the end that “We don’t want to do all this on our own, but in partnership with some of the existing sites which are pioneering web democracy – and with the democratic institutions themselves”.

This is significant – and exciting – new territory for the BBC. The Corporation will need partners, and will need to sustain its ambition (not so easy given the financial and other pressures it is under), but this is most certainly the right direction. Thank goodness.

Written by Martin Moore

January 16th, 2008 at 12:48 pm

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