By LINDA PONA
February is synonymous with dark sadness for South Africans. Since last, we learnt that one of the country’s biggest cultural icons and rappers, Ricky Rick, died by suicide.
Ricky Rick, born Rikhado Makhado, was reported dead on 23 January 2022 after a long battle with depression. The news of his death was first widely spread on social media, where users were in disbelief and shock, with many using the opportunity to voice how they have battled with their own inclinations to attempt what he did.
Coincidentally, a month prior, on 22 January, legendary actor Patrick Shai was also reported to have died by suicide.
Like Makhado, he also reportedly struggled with depression.
A similar trend happened in 2018 when 34-year-old Intersexions actress Shoki Mokgapa, was also reported to have died from the same illness. Exactly a month later, another one of the country’s most talented hip-hop artists, Jabulani “HHP” Tsambo, was also reported to have died from suicide.
And I could go on, but apart from the fact that these figures were all public personalities struggling with depression and mental health issues, I also believe that another common thread in all those deaths is how the media reported on them, which possibly led to them to commit “suicide contagion” or “copycat suicide”, which is a term a ReportingOnSuicide says is what happens when one or more suicides are reported in a way that contributes to other suicides.
This research by the organization states that more than 50 research studies found this to be true and that the magnitude of spikes in deaths by suicide is related to the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage.
In the case of the aforementioned individuals, the articles that detail their deaths go against the guidelines set out by organizations such as ReportingOnSuicide.org and Samaritans.org, which advocate for responsible reporting on deaths related to suicide.
With one simple Google search, you’ll soon realize that many of the articles that mention these personalities’ deaths also mention explicitly the method they used to end their lives as well as where these deaths happened as well as certain terms such as “committed suicide” as opposed to “died of suicide” and are riddled with sensationalist, rather than compassionate headlines.
According to research, these are the factors that contribute to suicide ideation in readers.
While it can be argued that these individuals were all struggling and sought to make their own decisions, it can also be argued that they saw their industry peers losing the battle and that in many ways, have pushed them over the edge.
We will never really know for sure, as suicide is complex. It is too complex for the oversimplified way we report on it in this country.
From that perspective, it should be worth remembering how powerful the media is in its influence over its intended groups.
It is perhaps time to start taking our reporting responsibilities more seriously.
I don’t think we do it maliciously either, but we are complicit if there are tools to help us do better, and yet we don’t use them to benefit our readers and listeners.
This editorial does not seek to blame any one of us but is calling us to better train our journalists with the skills they need to report on sensitive issues.
Rather, it calls for us to research the best practices in those issues and think about the lives we are impacting more than the clicks and views we are chasing.
Let’s not lose ourselves and the very essence of what this industry was built on in a rush to be the first to put the news out there.
Or it may cost us the very thing we vie for, which is our readers’ trust and credibility.
In closing, I’d like to call for the South African Press Council to review their guidelines and add some more on suicide reporting and develop its own guidelines on suicide reporting that members of the South African media can use and refer to.
And more importantly, for bodies like the South African National Editors’ Forum to speak out on instances where there is reporting, either in print publications or online, that isn’t in line with these best practices, as we saw recently with the publishing of Ricky Rick’s suicide note by Sunday World last year.
Finally, if you’re a Rhodes student struggling with depression or harmful thoughts, contact the Psychology clinic on campus at 046 603 8502 or send them an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For the Makhanda community, please contact the following numbers, which fall under the South African Anxiety and Depression Group: 0800 567 567 0r visit the website: http://bit.ly/3EfoVtv