Hi, Ms. Ditum, or Sarah, whichever you prefer. You’ve currently got me blocked on Twitter so I felt that since I had a few pressing questions to ask you and no contact info on hand I would write you an open letter on Thought Catalog instead.
I confess that I hadn’t been aware of your online profile until the stir caused by your recent article condemning coverage of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. When I started seeking out your work in the process of writing this piece, I was impressed at your prolific output at The Guardian, The New Statesman and other outlets.
In an effort to further my education I began reading through your past articles, conveniently collected on your website. I discovered you were the author of a few pieces I remember admiring in the past, like this piece a friend shared with me back in May.
I’m curious about the articles I can’t find, though.
I mean, I disagree with the details of your strong, principled stance on ethical suicide reporting in many respects, but I respect that it is a principled stance and one based on the guidelines published, as you say, by leading anti-suicide organization, the Samaritans.
Caring so much about young trans people’s lives that you will do anything to prevent triggering further cases of “copycat” suicide or self-harm is laudable. I, personally, would find it wrenchingly difficult to take the burden of hearing a cri de coeur as eloquent and heartfelt as Leelah Alcorn’s final words and taking it upon myself to hide those words from the world, denying Leelah her dying wish, because of my grim determination to fight for the greater good of the trans community.
But of course I would have the Samaritans’ guidelines to back me up. That would be my rock, my anchor, knowing that I was hewing to the scientifically established best practices for how to responsibly report on a suicide.
The funny thing is, Ms. Ditum, I remember another such case from 2012. I’m sure if I’ve heard of it you must have. It, too, was a woefully sensationalized case, so much so it has its own Wikipedia page: the suicide of Amanda Todd, of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, on October 10, 2012.
I am reading back through these media guidelines you posted and I am shocked at how systematically major publications violated them when talking about the tragic death of Ms. Todd.
You make it clear that photographs of the deceased must not be given undue prominence, especially photographs of young, attractive victims. Amanda Todd’s smiling image is everywhere when you Google her name, along with stills from a YouTube video she made shortly before her death.
You say suicide notes should not be directly quoted or linked. Several of these articles provide a direct link to Todd’s video or quote extensively from it. Although the video is not a “suicide note” – Todd had not yet decided to commit suicide when she made it – it does extensively detail her past attempts at suicide — something you also warn against — including providing methods that others might easily copy (drinking bleach, drug overdose, etc.) and includes language that clearly romanticizes self-harm, such as her description stating “I did things myself to make pain go away, because I’d rather hurt myself than someone else.”
You state that we should avoid naming a “sole contributing factor” of a suicide. Every single article I can find on Todd bluntly states that her suicide was a result of the sexual abuse and bullying she details in the video. You say not to “overemphasize community expressions of grief”; news reports describe a minute of silence held across the Toronto School District on October 19, mirrored by candlelight vigils worldwide.
You lambaste a news outlet for providing “celebrity reactions” to Alcorn’s death; news outlets widely covered Magic Johnson, Demi Lovato and BC Premier Christy Clark speaking about Todd’s death at an anti-bullying event, also on October 19.
You say it’s irresponsible to imply a suicide will lead to “dramatic social change” or “gets results”; Todd’s mother created an anti-bullying charity named after her called the Amanda Todd Trust. You specifically condemn the use of the term “wake-up call” in reference to Alcorn’s suicide in one piece. Searching “amanda todd” “wake-up call” on Google gets me 23,000 hits.
Moreover, you say the “sheer volume” of coverage of Alcorn on traditional and social media–183 articles published, 110,000 shares–gives Alcorn a dangerous degree of fame that will of necessity inspire copycats. Well, Amanda Todd has over 7,000 articles on Google News — some as recent as last month — and 687,000 Web hits. Her official Facebook memorial has over 11,000 likes; her Facebook presence overall has collected over one million. The video has received over 10 million views.
Finally, you decry the reaction of “global public shaming” directed at Alcorn’s parents as a result of the publicity. Surely you know the story — it’s Internet lore at this point — of how the “hacktivists” in Anonymous, encouraged by the potential for viral notoriety, went on a hunt for the man Todd described as her tormentor and blackmailer and ended up doxing an innocent bystander.
Okay, I’m rambling. I’ll get to the point. There really is no better example for violation of the Samaritan guidelines than the Amanda Todd case. The scale of the media frenzy around her, the clear example of collateral damage to an innocent party–everything about the Alcorn case pales in comparison.
So if you care so much about the Samaritan guidelines… where were you?
I’ve looked and looked, Ms. Ditum, but I can’t find your article harshly condemning the publicization of Amanda Todd’s suicide.
You were actively writing about feminism at the time. Your website shows published articles in 2012 on October 12, October 13, October 15, and October 18. None of them even mention Todd, or the media circus surrounding her death.
Indeed, you’re a contributor to Feminist Current, whose founder — your friend and colleague, Meghan Murphy — did a whole podcast using Amanda Todd as an example to raise awareness of the sexualization of young girls, and you never called her out for irresponsibility.
And it’s not like Amanda Todd is the only case, just the most obvious one I could think of. You cite both “bullied teens” and “trans teens” as groups it’s important not to trigger with suicidal ideation — well, Wikipedia actually has a category for “Notable suicides due to bullying” and I don’t see you pushing back against any of that coverage.
Where are your articles pushing back against the coverage of Phoebe Prince’s suicide in 2010? Or of Audrie Pott in 2012 and Rehtaeh Parsons in 2013, which involve situations eerily parallel to Amanda Todd’s and fit the profile of “copycat suicide” as neatly as any case I’ve ever seen?
Where were you when people were actually speaking out about the troubling aspects of the Amanda Todd coverage, like the chair of the Vancouver School Board, only to have Todd’s mother herself come forward and state that the publicity around Todd’s death did more good than harm? Amanda Todd’s video is still up on YouTube right now, and Carol Todd is still publicly drawing attention to it — isn’t this a more dangerous ongoing issue than Leelah Alcorn, whose parents have already had her suicide note taken down from Tumblr?
Or let’s take a different category of story, the one most analogous to that of trans teenagers — gay or lesbian teenagers who kill themselves because they were attacked for their orientation. You don’t want teen suicides to get “celebrity attention” or to “get results” for a political cause? Where were you when Dan Savage cited Billy Lucas’ suicide as the impetus behind his highly publicized It Gets Better Project? Or when the California State Legislature called their anti-LGBT-bullying law “Seth’s Law” in honor of Seth Walsh? Or when Lady Gaga, Zachary Quinto and Ryan Murphy posthumously put Jamey Rodemeyer in the national spotlight?
Where were the handwringing articles about possible copycat suicides from attention-seeking depressed gay teenagers then, Ms. Ditum?
I don’t find any mention of these cases in your writing history. The last time you brought up the issue of responsible reporting of suicide was this blog post on March 28, 2009, when you castigated the Telegraph for giving an excruciatingly detailed, gory account of a suicide method — I think we’re in agreement on that one. But then there’s the only other hit I can find on your site for the word “suicide,” an article from February 6, 2012. Interestingly in that article you violate the Samaritans’ guidelines multiple times by discussing the method of suicide (self-immolation) and naming a specific purported cause for the suicide (harassment by another family).
Well, I’m sure you had your reasons.
Look, I know this is a complex issue. I’ve kept my mouth shut on this issue for not knowing exactly where I stood, in the past. It’s a difficult issue. On the one hand there are all the issues you bring up–the violation of personal grief by making it public, the impulse for an outraged audience to make snap judgments, the potential glorification of a young person’s death as a political tool.
But on the other hand is the fact that the slut-shaming of teen girls, the bullying and exclusion of gay teens — these truly are political issues as well as personal tragedies. That Amanda Todd’s death was not a mere isolated incident but, as your colleague Meghan Murphy eloquently argued, a disturbing indicator of how our society generally treats young women.
If suicide is even partly caused not just by internal turmoil but real, external oppression, then there would be a real need to speak out publicly, to organize, to raise awareness about that oppression–a need that must be weighed against the caution urged by the Samaritans’ guidelines. That need was presumably the reason you violated the Samaritans’ guidelines to report on the suicide of Fiona Pilkington, to draw attention to the plight of disabled people.
It would, in fact, be the height of arrogance for an outsider like me to lambast Carol Todd or Dan Savage or the California state legislature — or you — for violating the Samaritans’ guidelines, to dogmatically state that the Samaritans’ guidelines trump their community’s pain completely.
Why, for me to do that, I’d have to have no respect for the community whatsoever.
One last set of questions and I’ll leave you alone, Ms. Ditum. Are you the same Sarah Ditum who told us in June, “Trans politics and feminism have never been headed to the same place”? The one who calls trans women “male women”, compared them to white people in blackface, and believes it’s critically important to exclude “penised individuals” from women’s spaces?
The same Sarah Ditum who’s expressed double standards before, talking about how the safety of vulnerable individuals trumps free speech except when it’s trans activists protesting being attacked by transphobic rhetoric, in which case free speech is paramount?
You’re that Sarah Ditum? And you discover this sudden interest in policing the media response to suicide in the one year when the biggest “non-celebrity death” (thus conveniently skipping the controversy over coverage of Robin Williams’ suicide, about which you were also silent) was a trans woman? It’s suddenly become important to you to silence inappropriate and irresponsible political rhetoric around suicide now, when the community doing it is the trans community?
Huh. What a strange coincidence.