Last Words - Vice and the Contagion of Suicide

Suicide is a permissive act. It serves as a demonstration of a possible solution or even a method of communication and, consciously or not, vulnerable people respond to it. The contagiousness of suicide is just one of the many reasons journalists have a responsibility to cover it responsibly.

Vice created a reprehensible fashion shoot for its magazine's Women in Fiction issue called 'Last Words'. The concept was suicides and suicide attempts of famous female authors. It has now been taken down from the site (you can still get it in the print edition) and the editors have offered an apology, but I spent a lot of today circling back to why the spread had bothered me quite so much.

First and foremost, 'Last Words' was cynical traffic-driving, social media-baiting, attention-seeking bullshit combined with the notion that if something ruffles feathers you are somehow edgy and challenging the status quo.

In many respects that's what the Internet does every day and it breeds a kind of cynical ennui - "Oh, it's the latest crisis on Twitter." But for me this was different. There are a number of issues which need unpicking to make sense of the discomfort but the primary one relates to suicide.

The media as a whole is terrible at reporting suicide because it resists easy narrative. The temptation is to simplify it to reflect a more easily comprehensible version of reality. Coverage veers towards the sensational or reductive. That, in and of itself, is not surprising. News media has an agenda and complex ideas get simplified for ease of transmission. The problem is that this doesn't take into account how suicide works.

The problem with reporting on suicide is that suicide can be contagious. David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California has authored a number of studies which investigate the relationship between coverage of suicides in the news and incidences of suicide in the period immediately afterwards. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book, The Tipping Point, "Immediately after stories about suicides appeared, suicides in the area served by the newspaper jumped."

Phillips' explanation of the correlation is that suicide is a permissive act. It serves as a demonstration of a possible solution or even a method of communication and, consciously or not, vulnerable people respond to it. The contagiousness of suicide is just one of the many reasons journalists have a responsibility to cover it responsibly.

With that in mind we come to Vice's photoshoot. Vice was being deliberately provocative as per usual but this shoot crossed a line for me and it's because it forms a type of suicide reportage.

A deliberately wide variety of suicide methods were being showcased in close connection with a desirable lifestyle (as exemplified by the clothing) and aspirational literary figures (these women were talented, complex, interesting people). Given Phillips' studies on the effects of presenting suicide on a public forum, it struck me as abhorrent that Vice was actively pursuing a campaign to get as many eyeballs on presentations of suicide as possible.

That's the single most important reason I am taking issue with the photoshoot. But there are other factors which bothered me and they feed into what we have created and perpetuated in terms of Internet business models.

There's a concept called the inhuman which came up in a book I was reading recently about the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard. It's a kind of catch-all term for when the human dimensions of a scenario are eclipsed by the technological and scientific. Here we come to the idea of page views, of brand awareness, of virality as measured by numbers blinking on a metrics dashboard. There's no business sense in caring about the human side. These dead women. Vice - and indeed huge swathes of the Internet - is not built on compassion. It is built on page views and advertising.

This is where Jezebel gets a mention. Their censure of Vice would have been laudable had they not reproduced the entire shoot on their site as part of the criticism. Several commenters noted that they were pleased by the decision as it meant Vice didn't profit from page views from the curious.

Lovely. Except Vice would own the copyright on those images. If they objected to Jezebel's coverage they could presumably have forced the site to take them all down (I don't know enough about the US law on that front but my gut instinct is that the volume of pictures Jezebel featured would go beyond fair use critique defence in the UK).

I've signed contracts over photoshoot image rights from magazines before and they can be draconian, particularly in terms of how you present the images critically. It's logical to think, given those assumptions, that Jezebel's use of Vice's imagery still benefits Vice. It also benefits Jezebel - all those people denying Vice their web traffic by heading over to the Gawker network. Even the censure is not about people it's still about page views.

This takes me to my last point. That the unsophisticated way we measure success in online media means all types of response and traffic tend to get classed as positives. As such the content spreads and spreads as more sites seek to make a point or a profit. Anger and action perpetuates the thing you're fighting against and so one of the most effective weapons we have is inaction - not mentioning it, trying to starve it of publicity. That too is a manifestation of the inhuman. Where natural human emotion and response must be sublimated in order to adequately manipulate our tech and business systems to give an appropriate response. As solutions go, it's not great.

In this scenario Vice did actually take down the shoot, but the fact that it existed in the first place, that it was presented without caveat and without context for the vulnerable, that Jezebel basically pulled the "look how dreadful this dreadful thing is - no really, have a look, we have so many pictures" trick, that we are perpetuating a system where pulling irresponsible attention-seeking shit for numbers is a valid editorial policy...

We need to find another way.

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