(Trigger warning: Mentions of suicide. If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs.)
"Was she a school leader?” a reporter asks, thrusting a mic at a woman who is rushing out of a funeral. She pleads not to ask such questions, saying they are already heartbroken about the death.
The reporter is relentless and prods,
“If she was a leader and the leader of the cultural committee, how did she make a decision like this?"
The student that the reporter is asking about is the 16-year-old daughter of Tamil actor, music composer, and producer Vijay Antony, who died in the early hours of Tuesday, September 19.
The media nightmare that followed the suicide, with Tamil news channels and YouTube channels perching outside the music composer’s house, has been called out by many.
However, it is not just about the insensitive coverage, these media houses are ignoring guidelines, and are downright dangerous.
Divya Spandana Fake News
"A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news,” this is a famous line from the TV show, The Newsroom.
Actor Divya Spandana was randomly pronounced dead recently by a few Tamil channels. Divya works largely in Kannada movies, but the fake news came from Tamil media houses first.
On 19 September, one Tamil news channel said on social media platform X that Tamil music composer Vijay Antony had died, while others said that it was his younger daughter who died. In reality, it was Vijay’s elder daughter who passed away by suicide.
The depravity and urgency of breaking the news of a death aside, what followed was atrocious.
Some camerapersons were showing visuals of the bereaved parents while others were seen speeding after the ambulance that was used to take the child's mortal remains for the post-mortem.
There have also been speculations about the deceased person's mental health, including for how long she was seeking treatment, as well as her whereabouts like who she last spoke to, and other details that TV anchors believe might have driven her to death.
This also raises a very pertinent question – should suicide coverage be aired constantly, especially when a minor is involved?
Reporters live from Vijay Antony’s residence shared specific details including the method of suicide and the arrangement of the deceased’s room.
The constant repetition of the method of suicide in the media may not only trigger those among the viewers with suicidal ideation but also could lead to ‘copycat suicides’.
Copycat suicides refer to a string of suicides that happen after a suicide has been covered sensationally in the media.
A 2015 study from South Korea discovered that there is a “strong association” between the media reports of celebrity suicides and the subsequent suicides that followed after excessive reportage.
The paper further recommended that there needs to be more responsible and sensitive reporting of deaths by suicide.
The reporting of Vijay Antony's daughter's suicide was not only triggering for the most part but also felt intrusive and voyeuristic.
Several titles and thumbnails of the videos uploaded to YouTube with a piece of moody background music were misleading and treated the suicide of a minor as a ‘sensational’ news item that warranted constant reporting.
Camerapersons from mainstream news channels and YouTube channels tried to get shots of Vijay Antony and his wife Fatima, as they were leaving and entering their residence.
These videos were then immediately published with clickbait titles like ‘Vijay Antony breaks down on seeing daughter’s body’.
A popular TV channel even covered the funeral. This channel followed the vehicle that was carrying the child's remains to a graveyard in Nungambakkam and telecasted visuals of the gravesite being dug.
Even well-wishers who came to Vijay Antony’s house to express their condolences were not spared.
Teachers and the deceased person's friends – who were clearly minors – were stopped by reporters.
When bytes from overwhelmed attendees at a funeral are aired to pass off as confirmation about the deceased child’s general behaviour, it also amounts to reducing the scope and complexity of mental illnesses to personal trigger points.
'Did She Look Depressed?'
Both mainstream TV channels and YouTube news channels asked the child's minor friends about the last time they saw her, if she ‘looked depressed’ when they last saw her, what could have driven her to such a move, and whether she was seeking treatment for any mental health problem.
Her friends answered the questions and noted that they were unaware about her mental health's condition and denied that she was seeking treatment for the same.
The question posed to her friends is once again dismissive of the deceased’s mental health as there is no singular way that a depressed person would look or act.
Such questions further create the wrong notion that there need to be certain visible markers for a person to be deemed mentally ill. Mental health is complex and people’s opinions about a person cannot be considered a medical diagnosis.
While it is possible that the deceased person’s friends might not have been aware of her condition at all, it must be scrutinised whether the deceased person’s friends, especially minors, must be asked such questions.
Though it is no fault of theirs, the responses of these minors may add fodder to the speculation about her death, possibly dismissing her mental health conditions.
Oversimplifying Mental Health Struggles
Apart from badgering funeral goers with questions, YouTube news channels interviewed psychologists and ‘mental health experts’ who further speculated what could have caused the child’s death.
A popular YouTube news channel that has been previously criticised for creating inappropriate and clickbait-y content, interviewed a psychologist.
She went on to detail what drives children to suicide and listed reasons like excessive gadget usage, having a separate room, working parents who do not spend adequate time with their children, and ‘inappropriate’ teenage relationships, among others.
Another mainstream media channel replugged an old video of Vijay Antony’s speech where he said that his father also died by suicide when he was a child and even went one step further to interview a psychologist on whether suicide can be hereditary.
While interviews are important conversations on mental health and suicide, they do more disservice than help when they fail to capture the complexities of mental health struggles.
As seen in the interview, there is a blanket generalisation of teenage mental health without taking into consideration the myriad of factors that could cause one to develop mental illnesses.
While the psychologist did not resort to speculating the reasons behind the 16-year-old's death, viewers of the video might be left with a poor and oversimplified understanding of mental health and teen suicides.
How to Cover Suicide Sensitively
There are several guidelines on media reporting of suicide coverage, including those from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The guide mentions that news reports and videos must include working resources that can be used by suicidal people to seek help.
Apart from that, it was also mentioned that one should be sensitive while interviewing the loved ones of the deceased person and educate the readers/viewers about suicide and its prevention rather than spreading myths about the same.
WHO also provides some guidelines on what not to be done while reporting on suicide. The guide said that even the language that is being used must be sensitive and phrases like ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took his/her life’ can be used so that the deceased person’s choice is not villanised.
At the same time, WHO recommends not to mention the method of suicide, as it might trigger people who are ideating suicide and make the methods seem more plausible to them.
It is also recommended that suicide coverage not take up prominent places in a newspaper or magazine or constantly repeat stories about suicide. Sensationalist headlines are also asked to be avoided.
Another resource prepared by The Suicide Prevention and Implementation Research Initiative (SPIRIT) says that graphic illustrations for suicide stories must be avoided. Apart from that, reporting suicide as a simple issue and using words or phrases that romanticise suicide must be avoided.