Rehtaeh Parsons, the media and social media: it's complicated

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It’s complicated.

The Canadian Psychiatric Society, among others, publishes guidelines for reporting on youth suicide. Don’t put the word “suicide” in the headline, it says. Don’t give such stories undue prominence. Don’t describe the method. Don’t glorify the victim.

The guidelines are designed to reduce the very real risk of copycats.

We know many media outlets violated those guidelines while reporting Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide.

We can’t know — yet — whether that will lead more young people to kill themselves. But we also can’t know whether the avalanche of publicity about this horrific incident will encourage as many or more parents to ask their kids the right questions before it’s too late, or give some troubled kids the courage to seek the help they need.

What we do know is that publicity about her case has triggered a much-needed public debate about youth sexual assault, cyber-bullying and teen suicide.

It’s complicated.

I, for one, worry about the mob mentality unleashed by publicity about Rehtaeh Parsons’ suicide. Too many people have been too quick to leap to conclusions based on too little real evidence. Too many people have been too willing to assume they know all they need to know to become judge, jury and executioner — of the justice system, of the school system, of the boys allegedly responsible.

And yet, I also have to acknowledge that same social media mobilization not only forced the reopening of the criminal investigation of Rehtaeh’s alleged sexual assault but has also sparked a broader review of how the system worked, or didn’t, and has even led to proposals for new laws, including how to deal with distributing intimate photos without permission.

It’s complicated.

Ask Adam Barnes. The 19-year-old Cole Harbour youth was among those “outed” as one of Rehtaeh Parsons attackers. Vigilantes distributed his photo online. Though he says he wasn’t even at the party where the assault allegedly occurred, Barnes now fears for his life. “I always have to worry about who recognizes me,” he told CBC News last week. “I always have to look out behind my back.”

In our rush to end online bullying and win justice for Rehtaeh, will we become the new bullies?

It is complicated.

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber, Website
  1. I have worried about the media response to the Parsons case and its possible upshot in more teen suicides. If the guidelines for writing about these matters are broken perhaps it is incumbent upon the press to find and publicize teens who have found a better path to peace or justice or revenge. As it is despite the constant harping in our culture about the importance of role models I’ve yet to detect a lot of effort to dig them out(there must be some)and publicize them.
    This is not to say that the press has an obligation to be the therapist to all the worlds teens but an effort to compensate for the possible ill effect of avalanche of publicity for the recent suicides would not be out of place.

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  2. As a former teacher within the province, but now settled in hong kong, I watched the accelerated speed at which this nightmare has garnered attention. It is almost as if people have collectively projected their own pent up frustrations with Nova Scotian beauracracy on this case (the perfect storm)..and then it seems the world ,at least temporarily, joined in as well. (Much to my admitted delight)Indeed,I felt there were many many things lacking with the education system in N.S.when I left it 18 years ago, particularly bullying.
    Instead of Nova Scotians quickly “resolving” this injustice, whether through vigilante means or brushing it under some red tape ,it seems it would be more worthwhile if all of us looked at how we let this happen to one of our own treasured daughters..indeed somehow we are all part of the mess. Whatever the answer, it will be long and hard fought for ,not some quick-fix pill. I also wonder whether the flow of social media will allow enough time for a worthy examination of how young men are taught within schools and what exactly constitutes “being a man” . ..and it should happen quickly before the next hit porn site is launched and sucks up our sons’ limited attention spans…well at least there is the new “Gentleman “single..by Psy….ohh on second thought maybe not.

    Agreed though it is complicated

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  3. I despise Anonymous not because I disagree with the aims of members but because they wear masks. When you wear a mask you can say anything you want without being held accountable. Anonymous is not a group of hackers. Hackers would get accurate information. It’s a PR group for losers who wouldn’t dare show their faces in public. By resorting to masks and vigilante action, they share tactics with the Ku Kux Klan. Some of the Facebook comments by Anonymous supporters are chillingly violent.

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  4. I agree with you in so many ways.
    It’s important to state though that those of us who immediately started to criticise our social systems, many of us already do this on a daily basis.
    What parent with a teen hasn’t had something to criticise? I have not met any.
    Hoping that something good comes from all of this is the only reason I continue to read the stories.
    Coming from someone who knows first-hand what victims go through I have hope for the first time in a long time that we will come together as a community and rectify our rape culture.

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  5. Too late to worry. In an age where social media expects and gives forum-type justice at the flip of a thumb, the mob speaks in seconds, not hours or days. Its judgement is a roar based on consensus, not evidence. It is more than complicated.

    “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

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  6. Very thoughtful comment, Stephen. I certainly don’t think it’s useful for the public to become judge and jury before each accused is, first, arrested, and secondly, tried.

    I think it is, however, perfectly legitimate to hold our public institutions – the police, school administration and HRSB – accountable for the apparent lack of proper investigation and appropriate response to severe bullying (Rehtaeh’s online bullying continued after she died, so this is not speculative).

    Yes, it is complicated; more complicated that it should have been if our social systems had worked in the first place. Ultimately, the tragedy is that a young girl who shouldn’t vas died, did die. For that, we as a society need answers.

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