Suicide rates in India are among the highest in the world, equating to over 200,000 suicide deaths annually. Crime reports of suicide incidents routinely feature in the Indian mass media, with minimal coverage of suicide as a broader public health issue. To supplement our recently published content analysis study, we undertook qualitative interviews to examine media professionals’ perspectives and experiences in relation to media reporting of suicide-related news in India.
Materials and methods
In 2017–18, semi-structured qualitative interviews with twenty-eight print media and television media professionals with experience reporting on suicide-related news were undertaken across north (New Delhi and Chandigarh) and south (Chennai) India. A semi-structured interview guide was designed to initiate discussions around; 1) perspectives on why suicide incidents are regularly reported on by mass media in India, 2) a description of experiences and processes of covering suicide incidents on the crime beat; and 3) perspectives on the emergence of health reporter coverage of suicide. Interviews were digitally audio-recorded and transcribed. A deductive and inductive thematic analytic approach was used, supported by the use of NVivo.
Suicides were typically seen as being highly newsworthy and of interest to the audience, particularly the suicides of high-status people and those who somewhat matched the middle-class profile of the core audience. Socio-cultural factors played a major role in determining the newsworthiness of a particular incident. The capacity to link a suicide incident to compelling social narratives, potentially detrimental social/policy issues, and placing the suicide as a form of protest/martyrdom increased newsworthiness. Reporters on the crime beat worked in close partnership with police to produce routine and simplified incident report-style coverage of suicide incidents, with the process influenced by: informal police contacts supporting the crime beat, the speed of breaking news, extremely tight word limits and a deeply fraught engagement with bereaved family members. It was articulated that a public health and/or mental health framing of suicide was an emerging perspective, which sought to focus more on broader trends and suicide prevention programs rather than individual incidents. Important challenges were identified around the complexity of adopting a mental health framing of suicide, given the perceived pervasive influence of socioeconomic and cultural issues (rather than individual psychopathology) on suicide in India.
Our findings delve into the complexity of reporting on suicide in India and can be used to support constructive partnerships between media professionals and suicide prevention experts in India. Policymakers need to acknowledge the socio-cultural context of suicide reporting in India when adapting international guidelines for the Indian media.