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News on Japanese actor's suspected suicide raises concerns over responsible reporting

A Twitter post by Tamaki Saito urging cautious news coverage on the death and suspected suicide of actor Haruma Miura is shown here.

TOKYO -- The death of Japanese actor Haruma Miura, who passed away in a suspected suicide at age 30 on July 18, has been covered largely on news programs and talk shows on television, newspapers, and on the internet, among other outlets. But experts have raised concerns over how the actor's death has been reported, pointing out examples of sensational articles that do not conform to the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on responsible reporting on suicides.

As Miura had been working actively and appeared in various roles in TV drama series, movies, musicals and other works, his death had a massive impact on the public, as seen in the comments sections overflowing with condolences on Twitter and other social media.

Many media outlets reported the background of events leading to the discovery of Miura's death, and how the cause of death was suspected to be suicide, as well as background information on the actor's career and his achievements. Some media outlets reported additionally in detail on the method and location of the suicide, as well as footage of the apartment the actor lived in and recent events that seem to hint at a suicide connection.

Numerous posts criticizing such reporting appeared on Twitter, with one user commenting, "I find myself intensely angered that no single item under the guidelines for suicide reporting is being followed at all, and how every single detail like the location, method, and time of discovery is being revealed to the public. Another post read, "There is not a single shred of a sense of ethics." There were also social media posts that revealed videos of reporters gathered in front of the actor's home, as well as posts requesting that TV stations verify what they have reported.

In a Twitter post, Psychiatrist Tamaki Saito listed points that should be avoided in suicide reporting, such as "placing articles in a way that they stand out." Saito additionally commented, "Newspapers are showing some decency, while sports newspapers, weekly magazines, TV programs, and online sources are completely not abiding by the guidelines (on suicide reporting) at all."

The resource for media professionals for preventing suicide created by the WHO form prominent guidelines for suicide reporting that are also translated into Japanese on the website of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The WHO guidelines point out that, "Media reports about suicide may minimize the risk of imitative (copycat) suicide or increase the risk." The reference guide provides six points that should be covered in suicide reporting, such as, "Do provide accurate information about where to seek help," "Do apply particular caution when reporting celebrity suicides," and, "Do apply caution when interviewing bereaved family or friends."

Furthermore, the guidelines list six "Don'ts," such as, "Don't place stories about suicide prominently and don't unduly repeat such stories," "Don't explicitly describe the method used," "Don't provide details about the site/location," and, "Don't use sensational headlines."

Reporting on the suicide of a famous figure like Miura is said to especially raise risks of individuals with high suicidal tendencies to engage in imitative suicides. Therefore, the guidelines state that suicides should not be reported in a way that romanticizes it, and the method of suicide should not be explained in detail. They also state that information on consultations and support centers should also always be included with the reported content.

Haruma Miura is pictured on July 3, 2019. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

However, the method and location of Miura's suicide has been repeatedly covered on TV news programs and online, and has been reported as the top article on the front page of sports newspapers. There have also been media outlets that mention the location and method in headlines, thereby receiving criticism as being sensational reporting. On the other hand, although coverage on the topic has been minimal compared to that on TV and in sports papers, the national Yomiuri, Sankei, and Nikkei newspapers specified the method of suicide, while the Mainichi and Asahi avoided such a description. The Mainichi Shimbun did not provide a list of information for accessing support centers, which is deemed as always necessary by the WHO, in the print version of its paper, although the information was provided in an online article.

Mafumi Usui, a professor of social psychology at Niigata Seiryo University, commented, "The WHO guidelines provide considerable restrictions on reporting, and it is probably difficult to follow all the points completely in cases reporting on a celebrity as famous as Miura. Even then, sensational reporting using exaggerated headlines, background music, and other devices, as well as reporting about the method and specific location of suicides should be avoided as they could have a large impact on fans and those in a mentally unstable state."

Usui has urged individuals who write about the topic on social media to "rather than glorify or criticize suicide, I wish for you to acknowledge the wonderful accomplishments of Miura and mourn his death."

(Japanese original by Takuya Yoshida, Integrated Digital News Center)

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