Mediating suicide: Print journalism and the categorization of queer youth suicide discourses.
Cover, R. (2012). Mediating suicide: Print journalism and the categorization of queer youth suicide discourses. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(5), 1173-1183.
This article examines the ways in which public knowledge of sexuality-related youth suicide and its causes are produced and made available through news media and print journalism. Through extensive research, Cover identifies four categories of sexuality-related suicide discourses in news stories and features within the past two decades: “statistical research that makes non-heterosexuality implicit as a cause of suicide; stories about deviancy, guilt, and shame; suicide survivor stories; and bullying/harassment of non-heterosexual persons by individuals in schools and other institutions as suicide cause” (p. 1173). Cover delivers a compelling argument that, “through processes of news production and meaning-making, use of expert opinions of primary definers, experiential accounts, reliance on citations of quantitative data, private accounts given as entertainment, and the newsworthiness of suicide as drama, public knowledge on queer youth suicide is guided by contemporary journalism” (p. 1173). The author, in conclusion, asserts that in the vast majority of news reports, features and public discussion on the issue of queer youth suicide, the relationships between the social factors of heteronormativity, mental health, depression, and despair are widely excluded from public scrutiny or consideration.
To gather data, Cover compiles an exhaustive database of news articles, magazine features, and public discussions of queer youth suicide which have been covered by mass media and, through the process of textual analysis, determines that there are four distinct categories of sexuality-related suicide reports. Each of these categories generally corresponds with a specific “causal rationale” that the news article or media provides as an explanation for the reason behind an individual suicide. These four categories, and their “causal rationales,” are: statistics (non-heterosexuality), deviancy/difference (shame and guilt), suicide survivor (culture of heterosexism), and bullying (individual peer behavior). The results of Cover’s research indicate that, over time, the mass media and news journalism reports have shifted from one category to another, relying primarily on victims’ identities as “non-heterosexuals” and the trends of social discourse surrounding queer youth suicide at the time of the report. Additionally, these news stories tended to offer different reporting styles and causal rationales based on the then-contemporary public knowledge and opinion of the issue. The author argues that positing non-heterosexuality alone as a primary factor of suicidality in these news-making processes contributes to extreme social ramifications. “There is the assumption in much research that the vulnerability to suicidal behaviors for queer youth is the result singularly of sexuality,” writes Cover, “rather than looking to the fact that sexuality is one facet of identity—an important and sometimes fraught one for adolescents in general—located within a complex of other formations of identity and selfhood” (1180).
Cover concludes the article by emphasizing the exigency for a change in social perspective in regard to queer youth suicide, warning that a failure to adjust or amend the conventional trend of news journalists and mass media to focus on victims’ sexualities alone will perpetuate a skewed public understanding of the social causes contributing to the suicides in question. A significant finding of Cover’s research is that journalism and mass media command public knowledge of queer youth suicide, and that, alarmingly, “the presentation of queer youth as being at risk of suicidal behavior per se, without regard to other factors both environmental and psychological, reinforces the notion that queer youth are vulnerable because they are queer—that is, not because of specific or general social conditions, contexts, and experiences” (p. 1180-81). This article contributes to the fields of queer theory/sexuality studies, the sociology of mental health and illness, social construction and critical media studies in that it examines the ways in which the media constructs and perpetuates public knowledge and perception of social issues, especially those pertaining to minoritized or subjugated groups within a society. Cover’s research could be especially valuable to researchers conducting studies on the social agency of oppressed groups, as he interestingly notes in his conclusion that, “positing a sub-population as vulnerable because they are in a minority has the tendency to remove any sense of agency from that group as a whole (Meyer, 1996), leaving the subjects at-hand as knowable only though that vulnerability” (p. 1181).