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Fear sells papers

By Alexander Holt - posted Wednesday, 13 June 2007

In the wake of the suicides of teenagers Jodie Gater and Stephanie Gestier in mid-April, it was depressing (yet predictable) that most of the commentary regarding the possible reasons behind these tragedies was sensationalist, shallow and tactless.

Faced with the imperative to inform the public about the suicides - yet stymied by a lack of genuine knowledge as to the girls’ motives - mainstream media sources throughout the country haphazardly drew conclusions relating to the two things they did know about the situation: both girls were frequent users of the social networking website MySpace; and both were identified as belonging to the subculture referred to in modern shorthand as “emo”.

The Age ran a story explaining that “Emo fans are classified as introverted, sensitive, moody and alienated, and are derided by other subcultures for self-pitying poetry commonly posted on the MySpace website” (“MySpace link to teens found dead in bush”, April 23, 2007).


The Sydney Morning Herald opened one story with “One of the two teenage girls who died in a suspected joint suicide pact posted a series of suicidal poems on the internet in the months before her death” (“Death pact teen’s grim poems”, April 23, 2007).

The story gained fresh allure recently when it was revealed the girls utilised the Internet to download step-by-step instructions on how to commit suicide (“Parents ‘sickened’ by suicide website”, Sydney Morning Herald, May 20, 2007). The father of one of the girls spoke publicly on 60 Minutes for the first time since her death on May 20, voicing his disgust that the girls were able to consult a website showing “which particular rope to use, how to do the knots, how to test that the rope won't break under your weight, under the weight of both (girls)”.

Parents have every right to be horrified that this information is so freely available. The existence of such sites is obviously a major concern, as are the slew of websites that teach users how to make bombs, encourage young girls to develop eating disorders, or promote pedophelia.

Even so, there is still a significant problem with how the mainstream media has handled the reportage of this story. By relying solely on links to the emo subculture and the MySpace website, they have created consensus around disturbingly flimsy reasoning. This journalistic methodology is geared more towards fear-mongering than ethical reporting, under the rationale that fear sells papers - and that people fear what they don’t understand.

By its very definition as a subculture, emo is widely misunderstood. As observed by one commentator, “when subcultures do enter the spotlight it is almost invariably because of a perceived crisis; traditionally, narcotic and sexual abandon, crime and suicide” (Jack Sargeant: “It’s hard to be emo and be respected”, The Australian, May 3, 2007).

As for MySpace, this mostly youth-based cultural phenomenon still eludes a significant proportion of the adult population. Out-of-touch parents of teenagers are therefore acutely vulnerable to this fear-based reportage.


But rather than try to promote understanding of the role emo and MySpace play in modern society, headline-happy sub-editors have been having a field day, producing stories that are at best highly superficial and unlikely to educate anyone.

In most coverage of the suicides, emo is purported to be a dangerous cult promoting suicide and self harm. This is not the case. Portrayal of the emo subculture has leant heavily on little “tells”, such as self-hating poetry and the perspective that “emo kids” excessively revel in feelings of misery and alienation, with little explanation of where emo came from and why it has garnered any popularity.

The subculture has its roots in a genre of independent or “indie” rock music that emphasised introspective, self-aware lyrics and themes of alienation and self-doubt. The music has evolved somewhat since then, but the core lyrical focus remains. As a result, the subculture - the music’s fan base - attracts introspective, melancholy people.

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About the Author

Alexander Holt is a second-year Bachelor of Communication student at the University of Newcastle.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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