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Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?

"Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?" Continued...

“The highest wisdom, therefore, even for a wretch whose life is saturated with sorrow, and for whom apparently there is no future, is to wait. Surely, considering how much we need them, faith and persistence should be lightly abandoned. The very fact that we are not yet called from the scene of wearisome struggle and disaster, seemingly consummate, should prove to us that Providence has some design in continuing our existence. …”

Newspapers during the 1870–1900 era, by linking suicide with other unethical or illegal behavior, by playing up the bloody physical results of the action, and by affirming a Providential plan for individual lives, were declaring that suicide was definitely out of bounds.

Today, greater concern for invasion of privacy, and awareness of potential lawsuits, sometimes keeps journalists from being explicit in their judgment of suicide’s rightness or wrongness, even if they would want to be. But a more fundamental change has occurred also: Suicide is now seen as an act of social estrangement rather than one of religious despair.

Émile Durkheim
Wikimedia Commons
Émile Durkheim
The book that helped to create that changed perception, Émile Durkheim’s Suicide, was published in 1897. Durkheim argued that patterns of social relationship, rather than theological beliefs, should be weighed most heavily in examining the causes of suicide. An individual’s personal relationship with God was not a factor for Durkheim, because he believed that religion was only a mechanism for social cohesion. Other sociologists with atheistic presuppositions had similar views of suicide: Since religious faith was an ideological rationalization—part of the superstructure erected by individuals on a material base—it could not have a primary impact on that base.

Durkheim, often called the father of sociology, had an enormous impact on several generations of sociologists and popularizing psychologists. His way of looking at suicide has spread throughout Western culture. Recent literature on suicide stresses societal and environmental causes, rather than personal failings. Some recent books are even of a “pro-choice” variety, indicating that suicide can be a proper existential decision for individuals. It appears that societal and journalistic attitudes concerning suicide no longer include the absolute condemnation prevalent a century ago.

Current suicide reporting paradigm

The current format—evident from reading recent newspaper suicide stories and journalism textbook discussions of how to cover suicide—suggests that reporters should clean up the blood and avoid criticism of the dead. For instance, one standard textbook noted, “Gory details are nearly always omitted in suicide stories.” Editorial Research Reports warned that the motives of suicidal young people in particular should not be criticized, because “this merely adds to their belief that no one understands them.”

Comments by editors reflect a hesitancy even to deal with suicide. One survey showed that only 23 percent of editors polled had a policy of always printing the cause of death in suicide accounts. A typical editor responded, “Individual suicides are not worth the pain to report unless it is something spectacular or a well-known individual.” Another editor, discussing coverage of suicide, replied, “We don’t feel that kind of information is so important to readers that it is worth violating the privacy of the individual.”

Such statements may reflect advice of legal counsel. Yet, when the decision is made to cover suicide (at least of young people), the typical approach reflects not late 19th century American newspaper practice, but a romanticism reminiscent of some early 19th century European literature. One of the heroes of a German suicide-prone generation at that time was Goethe’s character Young Werther, whose ideal was “to cease upon the midnight with no pain” while still young and full of promise.

For instance, when The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., covered the 1983 suicide of Kent Green, age 16, the newspaper’s Sunday magazine put his smiling picture on its front cover, with the caption, “Star athlete, solid student, popular leader—in every way he seemed to be a youth with every reason to live. …”

The story inside quoted Green’s suicide note—“I just didn’t have a future”—and noted simply that, “One night he put a rifle to his head and pulled the trigger.” Readers were not shown brains and blood all over the floor. Readers were told of Green’s burial in his favorite clothes, and of how he was deeply missed by parents, friends, and teachers who often think about him. The story’s final sentence concerned Green’s mother: “She also still keeps the door to Kent’s room closed, and for the most part she stays out. But sometimes, when she’s home during the day, she will open the door and just look in.” The romanticized story had a tragic aftermath. Terry Ray Cahill, a friend and classmate of Kent Green, read the article five times, according to one of Cahill’s friends, and said “that it wouldn’t be a bad way to die.” Two days after its publication, Cahill shot himself in the head, just like Green had, and died. The local school superintendent noted the next day, “I’m very concerned about the fact—whether it’s irony or whatever—that this kind of tragedy falls right on the footsteps of this Courier-Journal article.”

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