Over the past six weeks or so, the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, has swiftly become a hot topic. Primarily focusing on the show’s frank portrayal of suicide, a cacophony of frantic voices have been given prime space in the media, many of which accuse the series’ producers for peddling ‘dangerous’ and ‘harmful’ material; for ‘glamourizing’, ‘romanticizing’ and/ or ‘sensationalising’ the way in which protagonist, Hannah Baker, takes her own life. ‘There is a great amount of concern in the suicide prevention community around this series’, claims Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE). “Young people are not that great at separating fiction from reality”, says Reidenberg, and ‘we see them actually replaying what they’ve seen’.
Australian mental health organisation, Headspace, publically condemned the show for containing ‘dangerous content’. Speaking to The Huffington Post, Kristin Douglas claimed that ‘irresponsible reporting can lead to further death’ and that 13 Reasons Why could spark off a ‘suicide contagion’, especially among children and teens. This kind of ‘suggestion-imitation’ model has been feted, celebrated and well and truly discredited. So-called ‘copy cat behaviour’ has not only become a shorthand way of describing one’s own fears and anxieties, it has been thoroughly debunked.
The idea that fictional representations of suicide, especially those that depict method, can be directly linked to rising national suicide rates is worrisome. As usual in cases of moral panic, expert voices have been given a bullhorn with which to shout highly emotional warnings using bald language that reproduces a rhetoric of fear, risk and harm (which is not a new phenomenon, of course). These experts come armed with ‘research’ on their side, proof that the danger is real (usually without informing audiences where this research can be found). Furthermore, within the cognate fields of film, television, journalism, media and cultural studies, these kinds of arguments have been undermined, time and time again. (Interested readers can check out David Gauntlett’s Moving Experience: Media Effects and Beyond or Martin Barker and Julian Petley’s collection, Ill Effects: The Media Violence Debate.)
On the Mindframe website, the Hunter Institute of Mental Health claim that ‘more than 100 international studies have been conducted looking at the link between media reporting and suicide’. That certainly seems to be unequivocal. However, what the website doesn’t say is that within the field of psychology – and, by extension, other cognate disciplines – there is no consensus nor consistency on these important issues; that is to say, the field is more akin to a battleground than a peace process. (Partrick Malarkey and Christopher Ferguson’s Moral Combat provides an accessible and ribald commentary on a range of these issues.)
In the peer-reviewed journal, Mortality, for instance, James B. Hittner emphasises that ‘a number of studies have reported positive associations between mass media portrayals of suicide and actual suicide rates, [but] these studies have been criticised on both methodological and statistical grounds’. Additionally, much of the extant research relies on what Markey and Ferguson term an ‘illusory correlation’ which I am particularly interested in how Ofcom included terms about imitative behaviour and how this was arrived at (I won’t go into the problems with this research here, but, instead, refer interested readers to Ann Luce’s The Bridgend Suicides: Suicide and the Media (2016) for a robust debunking of the relationship between media reports and suicide rates.)
More than this, however, astute readers will no doubt have noticed an enormous elephant thudding across the room.
These studies, with their methodological problems and statistical mysticism, are about the way in which journalistic media reports on real cases of suicide, not fictional representations. Yet there are many ‘experts’ criticising Netflix for not following broadcasting and reporting standards, be it Ofcom, the Editor's Code of Practice or the Australian Press Council’s standards. 13 Reasons Why is not, nor does it claim to be, non-fictional reportage.
Although the Mindframe website does provide hyper-links to extant research, those links actually raise a series of issues in relation to fictional representations of suicide. Jane Pirkis and Warren Blood’s report clearly state that the evidence is not only inconsistent, but that ‘the evidence has been relatively weak’. Moreover, that ‘it is probably not the case that the association could yet be described as causal’.
In effect, by failing to inform the public of contradictory findings, certain experts are acting in fundamentally dishonest ways.
Rather than 13 Reasons Why being ‘sensationalist’, then, the way in which these kinds of voices are given prime space across global media news platforms has all the hallmarks of a traditional moral panic and runs the risk of being even more ‘sensational’. By reporting on the outrage emanating from the suicide prevention community (mental health campaigners, charities and psychologists) and, in the process, excluding other voices, is surely a cause for concern. It is not 13 Reasons Why that is ‘sensationalised’, but the way in which media outlets are latching onto the ‘sensationalist’ claims of a small portion of ‘experts’. Simply put, there is no scholarly consensus in either the field of psychology or suicidology. In other fields, especially media and cultural studies, the discipline has largely moved on from this kind of simplistic ‘effects’ model.
In fact, there are serious problems with these highly vaunted claims that may cause more harm than a Netflix series ever could. What does issuing anxious statements and writing letters to parents cautioning against viewing the series hope to achieve, such as that written by the NASP (National Association of School Psychologists)?
“We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character”.
Not only are these kinds of statements largely based in superstition (of copy catting), they are irresponsible and unsubstantiated. (Readers may be interested in Martin Barker’s thorough debunking of the thorny concept of ‘identification’.) Besides this, actively castigating a series as verboten has been demonstrated to have an antithetical affect (although there is also research that ‘proves’ the contrary, too, such is the psychology field). That is to say, that the ‘forbidden fruit effect theory’ posits that ‘warning labels will increase interest in violent programs, especially when the label source was authoritative’. Following this logic, then, are campaigners inadvertently promoting 13 Reasons Why as forbidden fruit?
Decades of research tell us that media audiences are not passive receivers but use, interpret, and resist ‘media messages’ in a variety of ways: “people do not indiscriminately absorb every media message, rather they interpret what they hear and see in the context both of what they already know and what they learn from other sources”.
To address this directly, I am one of seven researchers leading a large-scale project that investigates media audiences of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. We shall be releasing an online questionnaire in the next few weeks and will continue to examine the way in which news stories frame the fears and anxieties of campaigners and researchers that seem to be more about rhetoric than data. We also intend on conversing with academics from a wide range of disciplines with a view towards building a dialogue between psychologists, journalists, mental health campaigners and media scholars. By scapegoating media and amplifying the rhetoric of harm as legitimate and beyond doubt (as moral campaigners invariably do) constructs an alarmist narrative, when what is really needed is a rational, reasonable and democratic conversation. We do need to talk about suicide, but rather than demonise a Netflix TV series, perhaps our efforts would be best by speaking to one another, regardless of the academic discipline each of us belongs to.
By Dr William Proctor.
13 Reasons Why Project Research Team
Dr. William Proctor (Bournemouth University)
Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Huddersfield)
Dr. Ann Luce (Bournemouth University)
Dr. Lesley-Ann Dickson (Queen Margaret’s University)
Dr. Helena-Dare Edwards (University of East Anglia)
Dr. Billur Aslan (Royal Holloway University of London)
Shelley Galpin (University of York)