Suicide portrayal in the Canadian media: Examining newspaper coverage of the popular Netflix series ’13 Reasons Why’
Carmichael, V. & Whitley, R.
Evidence suggests that the media can influence societal attitudes and beliefs to various social issues. This influence is especially strong for mental health issues, particularly suicide. As such, the aim of this study is to systematically examine Canadian newspaper coverage of the popular fictional Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, wherein the lead character dies by suicide in the final episode.
Articles mentioning the series were systematically collected from best-selling Canadian newspapers in the three-month period following series release (April–June 2017). Articles were coded for adherence to key best practice recommendations on how to sensitively report suicide. Frequency counts and proportions were produced. An inductive qualitative thematic analysis was then undertaken to identify common themes within the articles.
A total of 71 articles met study inclusion criteria. The majority of articles did not mention the suicide method (88.7%) and did not use stigmatizing language such as ‘commit suicide’ (84.5%). Almost half of the articles linked suicide to wider social issues (43.7%) or quoted a mental health professional (45.1%). 25% included information telling others considering suicide where to get help. Our qualitative analysis indicated that articles simultaneously praised and criticized the series. It was praised for (i) promoting dialogue and discussion about youth suicide; (ii) raising awareness of youth suicide issues; (iii) shining a spotlight on wider social issues that may affect suicide. It was criticized for (i) glorifying suicide, (ii) harmfully impacting young viewers; (iii) prompting pushback from educators and schools.
Newspaper coverage of ‘13 Reasons Why’ generally adhered to core best practice media recommendations, and sensitively discussed suicide from various angles, prompting productive discussion and dialogue about youth suicide. These findings suggest that the media can be an ally in promoting dialogue and raising awareness of important public health issues such as suicide.