In reporting on the suicide of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, the media have been falling over themselves making comparisons between Roh and former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
One dead, the other alive: the former praised for his sense of shame and for dying to maintain his dignity, and the latter described as given to sophistry while refusing to face up to his responsibilities. Shameless, brazen, lacking talent.
The media have enhanced the contrast between the two using the standard black-and-white, one-good, one-bad approach, making Roh’s death seem even more tragic than it already is.
As someone involved in suicide prevention work, I am extremely worried that strong media praise for Roh’s mode of death will have an impact on Taiwan’s suicide problem.
Research shows that media reports of suicides committed by famous people can lead to a wave of suicides.
Local research has revealed that a substantial number of deaths followed the suicide in 2005 of entertainer Ni Min-jan (倪敏然). Although it is not clear that the suicide of a former president of another country would have a similar impact, the way the media has reported on this matter could exacerbate negative feelings among those exposed to these reports.
Roh’s death was reported in an approving manner widely across the mainstream media. In doing this, they shunned the slogan of suicide prevention groups — “value life, for there is endless hope” — and replaced it with respect and admiration for those who kill themselves. This is worrying, indeed.
The condemnation and blame heaped on Roh while he was still alive over his alleged corruption has turned into praise for his “upright” character and the “lofty spirit” that caused him to choose death ahead of humiliation. This sends out the mistaken idea that suicide can cleanse oneself of responsibility for a crime, and that such a death can replace this stain with an image of a person with lofty goals and integrity — a person whose place in history can be reinterpreted.
Those who do not kill themselves, on the other hand, will be slandered and come under crushing pressure. Media reports have failed to clarify the truth behind Roh’s alleged bribe-taking and did not follow up on whether justice was being served. They failed to explore Roh’s fear of taking responsibility for his mistakes, avoiding mention of the contradiction between his work to prevent suicide during his presidential term and his failure to set an example thereafter.
In short, the mainstream media have not provided a sufficiently diverse account of the political and historical complexities of Roh’s life and death, or of his character.
Instead, they have offered uniform praise, as if he were a martyr, with government officials chiming in.
This atmosphere compounds the difficulties in Taiwan’s already difficult suicide prevention work.
Roh is dead, but an evaluation of his merits and mistakes remains to be performed. Media discourse will remold his image and rewrite the social impact of suicide, possibly resulting in an increase in suicides.
I call on the media to report on the suicide of well-known individuals in a way that maintains human dignity, resolves problems and offers a more cautious description of the complex factors that lead to a suicide. This will give readers and viewers a far greater understanding of events at hand.
Chen Ying-yeh is a visiting academic at the Taipei City Psychiatric Center.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON
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