Suicide Is Not the Media's Fault

Last Friday, the Tampa Bay Times published a nuanced and heartbreaking feature story about Gretchen Molannen, a 39 year-old Florida woman with a condition known as "persistent genital arousal." Molannen described how her condition—likened to constant, unceasing physical arousal without any of the accompanying mental or emotional arousal—forced her to masturbate for hours on end and virtually destroyed her personal and professional life. The day after the story was published, Molannen committed suicide. A local blogger says the paper has "blood on its hands." It does not.

The Times story, by Lenora LaPeter Anton, describes how Molannen was unable to work, but denied disability. Her parents believed she was a lazy failure. Sex became a painful ordeal for her. She was unable to maintain relationships. She did not have the resources to get the medical help she needed. She grew desperate and depressed, and made two halfhearted, unsuccessful suicide attempts. The Times read its story to Molannen before publication, and she sent them an email thanking them for their work and their interest in her. Then, a day after it was published, she was found dead at home by police. The paper said it had received offers to help her after its story was published. She would never get them.

Any time a burst of media attention is followed in short order by a suicide, it will always be assumed by someone, somewhere that the media attention was the cause. The "someone" in this case is St. Petersburg blogger Peter Schorsch (also a somewhat disreputable local political consultant), who wrote, "While none of us will likely ever really know why Molannen committed suicide, we can all do the math. Woman tells story to the newspaper. Newspaper publishes sensational story. Woman commits suicide the day the story is published online. One plus one equals blood on the Times‘ hands."

Let us disregard the fact that that statement contradicts itself. And let us disregard the fact that when the story first ran, Schorsch wrote, "No matter how tragic the tale, it's difficult to take it seriously," essentially outing himself as a child. This sort of blame-laying is common, and understandable. It is also wrong. First, on a causal level: suicides can have many contributing factors—depression, drugs, hopelessness, grief, etc. Rendering a one-dimensional portrait of a suicide's cause is simplistic and inaccurate, and unfair to those upon whom the blame is laid. If a troubled teenager commits suicide because she "hates her parents," should we hound those parents into their own grave with guilt? No. We recognize that the victim's troubles ran deeper. Likewise, the media has a job to do, and it does it. This particular case was far from sensational tabloid journalism. But even sensational tabloid journalism is not, on its own, enough to "force" anyone to suicide. If that were so, Eliot Spitzer would have offed himself long ago.

The second problem is in the ethical implications of assuming that media coverage can cause suicides. Were that true, it would follow that the media has a responsibility to do everything it can to avoid causing suicides. After all, a human life is more important than any particular news story. That would mean that journalists would need to consider the possible (unforeseeable, unknowable, theoretical) effects of their reporting on anyone they wrote about. Would this story send its subject over the edge? Would exposing a politician's malfeasance make him take his own life? Would a portrait of a troubled individual send them on a downward spiral? It is impossible to know. But if you truly believe that reporting causes suicide, you create a situation in which journalists must err on the side of caution, lest something they do somehow send someone into a dark place. The result is Highlights for Kids and Reader's Digest as our last remaining national news organs.

The truth is that life causes suicide. Life, and all its attendant troubles, and injuries, and disorders, and pains. To the extent that the media is a part of life, then yes, it may be implicated in suicides. But not any more than any other part of life. The choice to commit suicide—and the responsibility for its consequences—ultimately rests with the person committing suicide. That burden of that blame is far too heavy to be casually assigned to the living.

UPDATE: Peter Schorsch writes us to say "the word 'controversial' would have been a better choice" to describe him than "disreputable." Noted.

[Via Jim Romenesko. Illustration by Jim Cooke.]