Not even 24 hours after the passing of Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell media has started to give out information about a suspected suicide. Since studies show the number of suicides increase after suicide news coverage, this is a problem.
The digital era has given us a lot of amazing possibilities for our work as journalists. But it also raises questions about how to deal with the new face of journalism ethically. In a time when reports from news agencies are coming in at a one-second frequency, we have to ask ourselves what is worth and right to publish.
Now a police official confirmed the following to the Mirror about the Cornell case: “We are investigating this as a suspected suicide.” “That is the line we are proceeding along.” This seemed to be enough for the Mirror itself, and afterwards the Independent, the NME, the Rolling Stone, Bild, etc. to run a little piece about it. And I ask why?
The media and especially news journalism works by certain rules. Of course, these rules vary by region but western media works more or less similarly. In Germany media is (voluntarily) restricted by the “Pressekodex“, a bunch of regulations dealing with personal rights, discrimination and so on.
Paragraph 8.7 says that coverage about suicides commands restriction. In many cases, German media doesn’t talk about suicides at all, since also studies have shown that numbers of people killing themselves increase directly after coverage (copycat suicide or “Werther-Effekt“).
We shouldn’t write about suicide light-mindedly
So you see suicides should be dealt with a great sensitivity towards everyone involved. Up to the point where public interest overweighs one’s personal rights, which is given, for example, when it comes to people standing in the public light. Of course, Chris Cornell was a public figure and one of the most influential musicians of Grunge and 2000’s Alternative Rock.
But given the fact that up to the point of writing this text there is no confirmation yet, whether the singer killed himself or not, we should at least question these specific patterns of news coverage. We shouldn’t write about suicide light-mindedly because it kills people.
In a case like Cornell’s – when a body is found on a hotel’s bathroom floor – investigating suicide is standard procedure that shouldn’t be newsworthy. Yes, he is a public figure and the public has an interest in knowing how he died. But we should talk about publishing the story AFTER the suicide is confirmed.
Update: The cause of death has been officially confirmed. Chris Cornell killed himself by hanging.