Society | Media as Death’s Admen
We all know the saying that death never fails to make the news. If it bleeds it leads. But when does the news about a celebrity suicide no longer function as news but as something else–entertainment, or worse, an advertisement?
For those of you who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s groundbreaking Tipping Point, the recent spell of back-to-back suicides among Korean celebrities and the consequential media orgy of the macabre that followed suit may recall this troubling fact about suicide:
“The central observation of those who study suicide is that, in some places and under some circumstances, the act of one person taking his or her own life can be contagious. Suicides lead to suicides.” –pg. 222
Gladwell describes what happened in Micronesia when one adolescent boy upset with his father killed himself. The news of that death and the conditions present in that small island society sparked a wave of copycat suicides from other adolescent boys who befell similar angst with their parent(s). Suicide ideation, richly filled with symbol and meaning to adolescent males, caused virtually nonexistent suicide incidents to rocket to 160 per 100,000 in just a few years. Suicide became “a ritual of adolescence” expressed in songs aired on radios, worn on T-shirts, and experimented by young males who may not have even had a desire to die, according to researcher Donald Rubenstein.
In Korea this fall, amidst a worldwide economic downturn, changing gender roles, a flailing exchange rate, and the season’s natural predisposition toward personal reflection (for better or worse), Korea’s working wounded in their 20s and 30s are standing at the precipice of a major public health crisis. If Gladwell and suicide researchers are right, things are about to get far worse before they get better.
Suicide is already the leading cause of death for Koreans in their 20s and 30s, and fourth overall, according to Korea’s National Statistics Office. Figures show the phenomenon has doubled its rate between 1995 and 2005 from 11.8 to 26.1 per 100,000 people, which is by comparison twice as much as the number of suicides in the U.S.
Previously celebrity suicide was considered an unfortunate and sporadic tragedy of a person in a life far removed from the rest of us, but this is no longer considered true. Celebrities who take their lives can initiate a chain of deaths in their wake that reach much closer to home. Gladwell explores David Phillips’ work as a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego. Phillips states:
“…I don’t know whether any of us knows how much is unconscious. Human decisions are subtle and complicated and not very well understood.”
Gladwell summarizes: “The decision by someone famous to take his or her own life has the same effect: it gives other people, particularly those vulnerable to suggestion because of immaturity or mental illness, permission to engage in a deviant act as well.”
The media has been like death’s admen. Their flashbulbs snapped processions mercilessly, as though the teary eyed celebrities who paid their respects were just auditioning for some role of unforgettable sadness. Their actions leave many wondering whether the media has to an irresponsible and unreasonable degree made things worse by peddling the deaths of Jeong Da-Bin and U-nee in 2007 and the recent spate of suicides of Kim Ji-Hoo, Ahn Jae-Hwan, and Choi Jin-Sil.
Many have also explored the role of internet attacks and rumors as the leading contributor of the celebrities’ suicides, but it is also known that there are also several other conditions that make it difficult to address the root causes of suicide across Korean society. Chief among the causes are high stresses in education and worklife, which can easily become exacerbated by any underlying mental illness, and then initiated by the culturally propagated meme of taking one’s life as a solution to pain, and left for dead by a system that ignores rather than treats depression.
What can be done to stem this irrational and dangerous trend? Currently at the National Assembly the debate is on enforcing a real name system and to close the gaps that allow netizens to attack public figures. While this may be effective, more must be done to address the very idea of suicide itself.
For one thing, a concerted effort needs be made by the talent industry, in cooperation with doctors and mental health associations like the Korea Association to Suicide Prevention, to tackle depression and suicidal among celebrities. PSA’s, a call-to-arms, anything to make it known that suicide is not the right choice. There must be social acceptance of depression, and medical professionals must be allowed to treat those who require mental help–with insurance co-pay and/or government subsidies.
In an obvious solution, parents and schools must get involved early and often to create new pathways that allow young people to look at other ways to address angst, anger, frustration, depression, financial difficulties, internet attacks and so on.
Lastly, the media, particularly the news agencies, need to reinforce their code of ethics so that they can report on suicide objectively, instead of portraying it as resembling some kind of tragic, glorified wedding-in-black. News agencies are recognizing South Korea’s suicide phenomenon as an indication economic woes, but in reality, they need to re-examine what role they play in making it more widespread.
–The Seoul Satirist says October is about Death (suicide tipping point) and Comedy (election ’08)