Anna Breslaw’s 600-Word Sprint: Media Shame Game Makes Bad News Worse

All the finger-pointing around two recent suicides is missing one vital thing: any information on how to help someone living with depression.

Nursing students sing while holding a poster depicting London nurse Jacintha Saldanha during a candlelight vigil for her in Bangalore, India. (Photo: Stringer/Reuters)

Dec 13, 2012

TakePart presents “Anna Breslaw’s 600-Word Sprint,” a weekly column of pop culture analysis and social justice insight. Look for Anna’s Sprint every week on the homepage of TakePart.

Two recent tragedies have amplified a tendency of the media to scapegoat the media as a careless steamroller crushing real human beings while in pursuit of tawdry stories.

The apparently self-inflicted deaths of British nurse Jacintha Saldanha and Gretchen Molannen, a Florida woman who suffered from a rare genital disorder, have both turned into media events that stemmed from media people going after media stories.

It’s never been a natural human tendency to see shades of gray when tragedy strikes, and there seems to be increasingly less distinction between the paparazzi-style “journalism” of TMZ and, oh, I don’t know, actual journalism.

MORE: Why Do We Commit Suicide?

Both of these recent suicide narratives have been retold in posts and stories from across the entire spectrum of the different journalism breeds, but what the coverage has in common is more important: Everyone in the current events business seems to be blaming various communications outlets (not their own) rather than focusing on ways to prevent these sorts of suicides in the future.

Also common is a downplaying of the contributing circumstances that had been pressing on both of the suicidal women long before the media got involved—circumstances that might be addressed to the benefit of people who are still living.

The more prominent event was the suicide of 46-year-old Jacintha Saldanha, a London nurse at King Edward VII’s Hospital, where Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was bedridden with hyperemesis gravidarum: severe vomiting associated with pregnancy.

Where Kate goes, the paparazzi are sure to follow. A pair of young Australian DJs prank-called the hospital claiming to be Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth, checking in on Middleton. Saldanha passed the phone on to a hospital employee who unwittingly provided private medical information to the Australians.

The hoax quickly hit the Internet, embarrassing Saldanha and the hospital. Shortly afterward, Saldanha was found dead in her apartment. She left a note for her family, the contents of which are private.

Naturally, as far as the tabloid-nurtured portion of the public is concerned, the married mother of two has become another victim of the contention between the media and the Royal Family, an ongoing clash whose most memorable casualty was Princess Diana.

Did DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian set in motion a chain of events that led to Saldanha’s suicide? Possibly, but a proximity of events is hardly enough to pin full cause-and-effect culpability on Grieg and Christian.

Perhaps Saldanha’s grieving friends and family, some of whom were quoted in the press, mostly anonymously, characterizing her as “such a strong woman” who “could handle anything,” can take some comfort in believing that the suicide was brought on by outside forces rather than a manifestation of profound depression.

“This isn’t living,” Gretchen Molannen told the Tampa Bay Times in a feature on her condition. She had hoped the newspaper exposure would raise awareness of her disorder and help other women.

The only quote attributed to Saldanha about herself, on a driver’s license application, could mean everything or nothing: “I am a very nervous person.”

New York’s Daily News—which lands somewhere in the journalistic midlands between TMZ and the Columbia Journalism Review—on Sunday, December 9, published an article headlined “Family of Nurse Jacintha Saldanha Who Killed Herself Blame Death on Deejays Who Pulled Kate Middleton Phone Prank.” The family cited in the headline was represented in the story by a solitary unnamed source of unspecified connection to Saldanha or her survivors. On Wednesday, December 12, that same paper acknowledged, at the bottom of a long recap, that Saldanha’s brother, Naveen Saldanha, “disputed previous reports that his sister may have felt ashamed for unwittingly taking part in the prank.”

The Daily News neatly pulled off the journalistic trick of being the source of disputed reports, and of lightly spanking that source for spreading disputed reports. Neither of these reportorial forays furthered the clarity or understanding of the torments that drove Jacintha Saldanha to her painful and devastating choice.

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The other female suicide to become a media Ping Pong ball this month—albeit with far less fanfare than surrounds a Royal scandal—was Gretchen Molannen.

The Florida woman suffered from PGAD: persistent genital arousal disorder. Doctors refused to take her disorder seriously, as very little is known about its genesis or legitimacy. The condition rendered Molannen unable to work in an office; yet she didn’t qualify for disability insurance. Actual sex was extremely painful, and she couldn’t have an intimate relationship. She’d attempted suicide twice before.

“This isn’t living,” Gretchen Molannen told the Tampa Bay Times in a feature on her condition. She had hoped the newspaper exposure would raise awareness of her disorder and help other women.

“I think about suicide all the time. It doesn’t mean I want to do it. I don’t want to do that. I want to enjoy life. I used to love life.”

The day after the feature ran, Molannen emailed the editors, thanked them for the exposure, and took her own life.

Reacting to Molannen’s suicide, local blogger Peter Schorsch, executive editor of SaintPetersblog, claimed that the Tampa Bay Times “has blood on its hands” for running the story for sensational purposes. But Schorsch’s blood judgment, arguing that “a story about a woman ‘who must masturbate for hours for just a few minutes of relief’ did not belong in a mainstream newspaper,” displayed insensitivity and disrespect for Molannen’s intentions and her condition.

The judgmental sentiment—don’t expect SaintPetersblog to recognize the irony—undercuts Molannen’s final wish: To use the feature story to make the public aware of and sensitive to the disorder that ruined her life, and show other women they’re not alone.

What’s done is never done as long as newspapers need to be sold, ratings need to be bumped and page views need to be chased: But picture a world where we as news, and news-ish, consumers demand and expect constructive information delivered responsibly.

Rather than the media rushing to blame the media for the deaths of these women, that flurry of energy might be flowed into a constructive alternative— like reasoning for the creation of more networks to help the depressed, or advocating for more research on conditions such as PGAD and calling out to place these rare disorders into the disability insurance network—perhaps even find a cure.

Pointing fingers may hit traffic goals, but it doesn’t save lives.

What is some of the best, most empowering news coverage you’ve seen in the past year? Give credit where credit is due in COMMENTS.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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