Media most foul: How Sushant Singh Rajput’s death was turned into a spectacle

Much of the coverage, especially on TV, was speculative, sensationalised, and irresponsible.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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Arey! Apni hi film dekh lete, Sushant!” (You should have watched your own movie, Sushant!)

This is how News24 chose to report on the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, 34, who allegedly died by suicide in his Bandra home in Mumbai on Sunday. The World Health Organisation’s guidelines for reporting on suicides urge the media to maintain extra caution when it comes to celebrity suicides. The guidelines include refraining from speculation, avoiding explicit descriptions and detailed information on the method used, avoiding language that sensationalises suicide, and exercising caution in using photos.

Closer to home, the Press Council of India has its own set of guidelines, adopted from the WHO, for reporting on suicides. Mental health organisations also recommend the phrasing “died by suicide” or “death by suicide” over “committed suicide”, since the latter is indicative of a “sin” or “crime”, while ignoring the circumstances that led to it. In India, attempts have been made to decriminalise suicide.

But in the Indian media’s coverage, such nuances went out the window.

Barring a handful, most media houses ran with the story once the news broke on Sunday afternoon. Rajput’s Instagram posts were analysed for “clues” on his state of mind. The header image of his Twitter account was scrutinised, while anchors speculated on his depression and whether he had financial difficulties.

On Zee Hindustan, for example, an anchor asked: “Phir kyu haargayi zindagi ki jung?” (So, why did you lose life’s battle?) CNN-News18’s headlines of choice included “Mental health ignored?” and “Could he have been saved with counselling?”

At a fundamental level, most news houses ignored guidelines on not reporting on the method used. This is detrimental as it can give rise to copycat suicides, especially among vulnerable people. This is especially true when it comes to celebrity deaths, as was seen in the case of Robin Williams. International guidelines say that, for example, while reporting on an overdose, specifying the details of the brand, quantity and combination of drugs and how they were obtained could be harmful.

DNA’s story included the details of the method in its strapline, while writing about Rajput’s last Instagram post on his late mother. Zee Hindustan’s headlines, translated to English, included “Sushant’s body was found hanging from a fan” and “In his Bandra house, he committed suicide by hanging himself”. Times Now, curiously and incorrectly, announced, “Covid + Depression claims life”.

News24’s headline — “Arey! Apni hi film dekh lete, Sushant!” — was a reference to Rajput’s movie Chhichhore, which dealt with issues of mental health. The channel followed it up with “Reel mai jo nibhaya, real mai usse bhulaya”. (What you maintained on screen, you forgot in life.) India Today said Rajput was struggling with “personal demons”. CNN-News18’s reporter said, on Rajput undergoing treatment for depression, “Certainly there was something bothering him and triggering him, but what triggered him to make such an extreme move?”

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Examples of the TV news reports on Rajput.

In all these reports, the method of suicide was specified.

Some channels broadcast images of Rajput’s body lying on his bed, a violation of the Press Council’s guidelines. Gujarat Samachar, one of the oldest Gujarati newspapers, even published it on its front page on Monday, despite the Maharashtra cyber police warning that the circulation of the photos violates legal guidelines and court directions.

The daily’s managing editor, Shreyansh Shah, defended the move, telling Newslaundry: “There is a difference of opinion but we are absolutely right.”

The English print media fared better than its broadcast and digital counterparts, even though it has, in the past, not complied with guidelines on suicide reporting.

Rajput’s death was the cover story in Monday’s Mumbai Mirror. The tabloid reported that Rajput had “died by suicide” and included helpline numbers on Page 9, where the story continued. The story also figured on the front page of the Indian Express, though not as its lead story. Four stories featured in the daily in total about the death, using responsible language but skipping the helpline numbers.

The Times of India ran the story as its second lead on the front page, and specified the manner of death in its strapline. On its second page, it featured four more stories about the incident. One of the stories was a collection of quotes from mental health experts, urging people to reach out to those in need, but still did not include helpline numbers.

Bombay Times, an advertorial attached to the Times of India, featured a quote from the late actor’s director as the headline — “It never felt like Sushant had a problem” — while the strapline was “And I really don’t know what got to him”. This incorrectly indicates that someone who is depressed “looks” or acts in a particular way. Rajput’s death was described as a “cruel irony of fate” while including details on the method used.

Hindustan Times carried the story on the bottom of its front page, and featured suicide helpline numbers prominently in a yellow box in the middle of the story. It used phrases like “died by suicide”, as recommended.

The Hindu’s coverage stood out from its counterparts. The story was carried on the back page, in the Life/Sport section, in accordance with the guideline of not publishing a story on suicide prominently. Its headline used the phrasing “passes away” — though this has now been updated to “found dead” in the online edition — and added helpline numbers at the end of the piece.

Vikas Dhoot, the resident editor of the Hindu’s Mumbai edition, said the decision about the story’s placement was taken collectively by the editors.

“The words and the reporting approach were carefully mulled over in this case too, as ingrained in our house style,” Dhoot told Newslaundry. “Where doubt could creep in on what constitutes gory unnecessary details that could have a traumatic effect on readers, words were culled. The health reporter is consulted, when in doubt over the best mental health practices for framing a sentence around the act of suicide.”

Front page coverage of Rajput's death.

On Sunday, Saurav Das, an RTI activist, filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission against media houses for “shamelessly sensationalising” Rajput’s death. Das’s complaint included Aaj Tak, for its headline “Aise kaise hit — wicket hogaye Sushant?”, which he believes violates Rajput’s human rights, as well as ABP News and Zee News.

“In India, since everything is left for self-regulation, it has failed,” Das told Newslaundry. “Just like the Supreme Court has issued guidelines for the media to cover rape cases, there need to be some guidelines for the media to cover suicide cases, especially such high-profile ones.”

Dr. Anjali Chhabria, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, said that every news story on suicide should be accompanied with a solution and suicide prevention helpline numbers.

“Any time there is a celebrity suicide, there is a lot of sensationalising that happens,” Dr. Chhabria said. “There are so many people who are suffering who may say, ‘If he can do it, we should also do it’.”

If you, or someone you know, needs help to overcome suicidal thoughts, contact: Fortis: +91 8376804102; AASRA: +91 98204 66726; The Samaritans, Mumbai: +91 84229 84528 (5 pm to 8 pm)

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