13 Reasons Why and the Media’s Handling of Sensitive Topics

Around 30,000 people kill themselves in the U.S. every year and nearly 500,000 more end up in the emergency room following a suicide attempt. (Ruiz, 203) According to Poynter’s coverage of suicide in the media, the media does not reflect these realities and instead covers rashes of suicides on universities, research on environmental or familial tendencies toward suicide and/or the suicide of specific and notable figures (Ruiz, 2003)

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Netflix’s original series, “13 Reasons Why” (which was adapted from Jay Asher’s novel of the same name) follows the aftermath of Hannah Baker’s suicide. Following her suicide she sends out 13 tapes chronicling the ins- and out- of her life, including the traumas that influenced her decision to end her life. The series tackles very sensitive and often triggering material including bullying, alcohol abuse, rape and suicide. ’ The series is modern media’s attempt to both comment on and initiate social awareness and change.

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Suicide is severely under-covered in the media, especially in comparison to homicide coverage, but journalists also have to be wary of disclosing too many details out of fear of copycat suicides. But as the Poynter study says “suicide experts generally agree that it’s not a question of whether media should cover suicide, but how we do so”  (Ruiz, 2013)

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The creators of 13 Reasons Why came under fire shortly after the show was released nearly a month ago with critics saying that the series glorified suicide and mental illness by its “glamorization of suicide as a revenge fantasy.” Critics also slammed “13 Reasons Why”  as they found that the show’s creators and producers consulted with suicide prevention and awareness experts to guide them through the appropriate ways to explore the subject matter without triggering anyone who has dealt with bullying, rape and/or suicide. But the producer decided against their recommendations to press on, showing graphic and emotionally charged scenes including two rapes and an graphic suicide.

As Ruiz writes, “mental illness is almost always present in a case of suicide. To report on suicide without discussing the role of mental illness is like reporting on a tornado without mentioning the underlying weather conditions.” And critics of 13 Reasons Why also cited that as one of their concerns as much of the examination and struggles with mental illness for the main character, Hannah, happens offscreen.  Coverage of suicide is a difficult subject to tackle, especially in television but I think if viewers should read 13 Reasons Why as a reminder to occasionally step outside of ourselves and acknowledge that our beliefs, actions and behaviors do not exist in a vacuum. No one ever truly knows what issues the people around them are already dealing with so we need to make our best effort to not adding to the suffering of others. 

The World Health Organization created media guides for those covering suicide wherein they discuss 4 major points:

  • Suicide is never the result of a single incident.
  • Details of the method or the location a suicide victim uses may lead to copycat suicides.
  • Details of the method or the location a suicide victim uses may lead to copycat suicides.
  • Suicide coverage is an opportunity to provide the public with information and resources that could save lives.

13 Reasons Why creators need to keep in mind that suicide coverage is an opportunity to provide the public with the information and resources to help those in the greatest need. That power should steer away from sensationalism and focus more on creating a springboard for discussion about bullying, rape culture and mental illness. People dealing with mental illness including suicidal thoughts do not often do so suddenly. There are warning signs and the media can be useful in recognizing those signs and bringing awareness to them. And once television media like 13 Reasons Why honestly research and evaluate the issue less problematic narratives will result.

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Though I think there were pieces of the 13 Reasons Why series that warranted closer and more nuance examination, I find myself agreeing with the review of the series from Indie Wire writer, Liz Shannon Miller, who wrote:  “in its examination of the ways we hurt each other, deliberately or casually, knowingly or otherwise, the adult edges to this story ring with honesty and truth. Because sometimes, the only way to feel something is for it to hurt (Miller, 2017).

 

Sources: 

Miller, Liz Shannon (2017). “13 Reasons Why Review: Netflix Brings a Brutally Adult edge to A Tale of Teen Suicide

Ruiz, Cindi Deutschuman (2003). Reporting on Suicide. Poynter: A Global Leader in Journalism. Retrieved from: http://www.poynter.org/2003/reporting-on-suicide/18183/

 

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