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Suicide, Fiction, and Ethics

CASE STUDY: 13 Reasons Why and Fictional Depictions of Suicide

Case Study PDF — Additional Case Studies

On March 31, 2017, Netflix aired 13 Reasons Why, an unconventional show that centers on the suicide of a 17-year-old character, Hannah Baker. This character takes her life and only leaves a box of 13 cassette tapes, each one naming a person in her life and explaining how they caused her to commit suicide. The students addressed on the tapes spend the entirety of the 13-episode season trying to come to terms with her death. The show was quite graphic in its portrayals of teen tragedies: it featured an instance of horrific sexual abuse, and the finale ends with a two-minute long scene of Hannah slitting her wrist in the bathtub, later to be found by her parents.

Red Heart On Railway Stop Teenager Suicide

Photo: Max Pixel/CC0

In a case of life potentially imitating art, 15-year old Bella Herndon committed suicide three days after she binge-watched 13 Reasons Why. Her dad, John Herndon, told reporters that Bella has been bullied since middle school and has struggled with depression. However, a few weeks before Bella’s death, her dad said “she was doing great. We put her in a new school. She had new friends. They were coming over. She was interacting with them, it was very positive.” Bella’s dad felt that the show was a trigger for his daughter because it seemed to present the idea that suicide is a justified response to the difficulties of bullying. John Herndon pleaded with the show’s creators to “Stop this. This is wrong. You’re making money off the misery of others.” The producers respond to the Herndon family and other outraged parties with this statement:

Our hearts go out to these families during this difficult time. We have heard from many viewers that 13 Reasons Why has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the difficult topics depicted in the show. We took extra precautions to alert viewers to the nature of content and created a global website to help people find local mental health resources.

Part of the worry over this show concerned a dispute of exactly what effects its gripping depiction of teen suicide had on real audiences. Was its attempt at realism and dramatic portrayal effective at reducing the allure of suicide? The writer of the show, Brian Yorkey, claims that “What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging.” Selena Gomez, the co-producer of the show, stated that they “wanted to do [it] in a way where it was honest and could hopefully help people because suicide should never ever be an option.” Gomez and the show’s other co-creators thought this fictional narrative would spur depressed and suicidal teens to reach out for help and support, making such challenges a matter of serious discussion. Gomez issued another statement saying, “I think that stuff is uncomfortable for people to talk about, but it is happening and hopefully it opened the door for people to actually accept what’s happening and actually go and change it, talk about it.”

Many mental health advocates and psychologists voiced concerns that this show would only produce more “copycat” responses of suicide. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that after the show aired there was an increase in Google searches using such search strings as “how to commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself.” These searches far exceeded other search terms during this time for strings such as “suicide hotline” and “suicide prevention.” Though searches for both pro- and anti-suicide search strings increased after the airing of this show, the worrisome “pro-suicide” searches were 17% higher than searches aimed at preventing suicides.

Connected to these worries were important choices by the show’s creators regarding aesthetic matters of realism and emotional impact which sometimes conflicted with more ideal—but less gripping—ways of depicting suicide. Some psychologists expressed concerns with how suicide was depicted in the show’s fictional narrative. For instance, after Hannah committed suicide, her high school locker was turned into a memorial. While this seems like a very possible reaction of her peers, some psychologists pointed out that this is not a constructive way for schools to react in response to a student’s suicide. Such an action may be understood by some students as glamorizing an act of suicide. Even the central narrative device of Hannah leaving tapes explaining how she was mistreated by students and peers was also criticized, since it seemed to display suicide as a possibly legitimate or effective form of revenge. Given such concerns, suicide prevention specialists had advised the producers to not release the series.

The first season aired despite these complaints, and plans are set for another season of 13 Reasons Why. This second iteration will add a viewer warning before the show’s first episode in addition to its existing TV-MA (mature audiences only) rating, and graphic warning signs will be placed before the episodes containing depictions of sexual abuse and suicide. Netflix has also launched an accompanying website ( that will contain information for viewers struggling with suicide and mental health issues. Gomez admits that “the content is complicated, it’s dark and it has moments that are honestly really hard to swallow.” But is such a realistic and gripping narrative the best way to address the tragedy of teen suicide most effectively?

Discussion Questions:           

  1. Should have the creators of 13 Reasons Why written and produced the show in this specific way? Why or why not?
  2. What are the important ethical decisions that must be made by a show depicting teen suicide and mental health issues?
  3. What are the conflicts between artistic or aesthetic values and ethical values in this case?
  4. Must good art always have positive effects? What if an artwork created negative consequences among those watching or listening to it?
  5. How should an artist balance the value of creativity with concerns of social benefit? What if the most realistic depiction of some phenomena wasn’t the best way to prevent future cases of it?

Further Information:

“Families blame ’13 Reasons Why’ for 2 teens’ suicides.” Fox News, June 27, 2017. Available at:

Jon Blistein, “Netflix adds more advisory warnings to ’13 Reasons Why.’” Rolling Stone, May 2, 2017. Available at:

Katie Kindelan and Sabina Ghebremdhin, “2 California families claim ‘13 Reasons Why’ triggered teens’ suicides.” ABC News, June 28, 2017. Available at:

“2 families endure suicides, blame popular Netflix show.” KTVU, June 26, 2017. Available at:

Lindsay Holmes, “’13 Reasons Why’ led to a major increase in suicide internet searches.” Huffington Post, August 2, 2017. Available at: 5980808be4b0d6e28a107dbe

Sadaf Ahsan, “Did 13 Reasons Why lead to a rise in suicide rates?” National Post, August 1, 2017. Available at:


Morgan Malouf
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
February 28, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

The Real Ethics of Fake News

Did you miss the talk on “The Real Ethics of Fake News” by Dr. Scott R. Stroud (University of Texas at Austin), the Director of the Media Ethics Initiative? Check it out here–for real!


Bullying our First Amendment?

CASE STUDY: Texting, Bullying, and Free Speech

Case Study PDF — Additional Case Studies

It is hard to decide where the freedoms granted by the First Amendment start and end. We can agree on certain problematic utterances that we wouldn’t say out loud, but are we confident enough in these judgments to legally punish these speech acts—and other similar ones we don’t anticipate? This was the conundrum brought up by the case of 17 year-old Michelle Carter, who convinced her boyfriend Conrad Roy III to commit suicide. Carter helped Roy construct his method of suicide, then followed with a month of persuading him into finalizing the plan. Through a barrage of text messages over the course of a month, she convinced him to go through the plan by explaining that “everyone will be sad for a while, but will get over it and move on” and telling him that “the time was right and he’s ready, he just needed to do it!” On what would be his final day alive, Carter texted Roy informing him “that if he didn’t do it now he’d never do it” and then made him “promise” to follow through. The following morning Roy was found dead in his car from inhalation of carbon monoxide. In court, Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and the legal arguments centered over whether these texts actually and primarily caused Roy’s death.


Photo: 14398/CC0 1.0

Should Carter have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter from texts messages sent to her boyfriend? The case against Carter was motivated largely by the idea that bullying with words is harmful and should be equated to physical actions in such extreme cases. Roy did not seem intent on committing suicide until the repeated urgings of Carter occurred. As Jason Le Miere reports, he attempted to abort the suicide attempt through carbon monoxide poisoning instigated by her texts, but then resumed his efforts after she messaged him to “get back in” the car that was slowly filling with lethal gas. If bullying can cause psychological and physical harm, society ought to have an ethical and legal justification to punish those who use speech in this way. Those making this argument also believe that punishing such cases of harmful words will hopefully stop future cases of cyberbullying. According to many, Carter went too far with her negative text messages and was the primary cause of her boyfriend’s act of suicide.

Those defending Carter from legal responsibility for murder argued that “speech that is reckless, hateful and ill-willed nevertheless enjoys First Amendment protection.” They believe that while the words can be potentially hurtful, the act of sending a text message is not equivalent to pulling a trigger and killing someone with a gun. The boyfriend’s actions, while related to the speech of Carter, were not the only possible result of hearing those words. Such an argument might go that however mean and callous her utterances were, his reaction to them was of his own free choosing. Professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School points out one challenge of finding Carter guilty of manslaughter: “What it does is just put people on notice that there could be extreme enough cases where prosecutors and judges find that [speech] has become homicide. Up to now ordinarily, we don’t find that mere remarks to a victim are sufficient.” The Director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Massachusetts affiliate, Matthew Segal, voices similar worries: “This is a killing in which the murder weapon was words, and that is an incredibly broad view of causation and an incredibly broad view of the manslaughter laws in Massachusetts and creates serious concerns about expanding criminal law without doing so through the legislature.”

As Robby Soave points out, complicating matters in this case was Carter’s status as a minor, as well as concerns about her struggling with mental illness. An additional worry is sorting out what sort of ethical and legal precedent this decision sets for cases of assisted suicide or euthanasia. As Matthew Segal speculates, “If you have a couple who’ve been together for decades and one says to the other, ‘I’m in terrible pain,’ and the spouse responds with saying, ‘I don’t want to see you go, but I think it’s the right thing for you, you should commit suicide,’ and then the person does it, I gather in Massachusetts, the commonwealth’s view is that is a crime and that spouse at our discretion can be put in prison for potentially a very long period of time.” Many want to treat euthanasia and cyberbullying as different types of actions, but the reasoning of this case shows how challenging it can be to draw this moral and legal line. How should our speech be treated in cases where others end up harming themselves?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree that Carter should be held legally and ethically accountable for her text messages to Roy?
  1. Should we hold individuals legally responsible for the actions that others do in response to our speech acts? Does it matter if we say something once or many times to the other person?
  1. Thinking about the ethical issues brought up by this case, can you imagine a less extreme situation where text messages caused a suicide? When might you have trouble drawing the line between crude jokes, general bullying, and blameworthy speech that seems to be a primary cause of someone taking their life?
  1. What might be the relevant distinction between speech that assists or appears to contribute to an act of euthanasia and speech that seemingly causes the suicide of another person? How would you construct a principle or rule that distinguishes the legality or morality of these two action types?

Further Information:  

Barbara Demick. “Woman who encouraged Boyfriend to kill himself via Text is sentenced to 15 Months in Jail.” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2017. Available at:

Paul LeBlanc. “The Text Messages that led up to Teen’s Suicide.” CNN, June 16, 2017. Available at:

Jason Le Miere. “What Michelle Carter’s Guilty Verdict for telling her Boyfriend to kill himself means for Free Speech and Assisted Suicide.” Newsweek, June 16, 2017. Available at:

Robby Soave. “Michelle Carter didn’t kill with a Text.” New York Times, June 16, 2017. Available at:


Haley Turner & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
February 14, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

danah boyd on Digital Ethics

The Media Ethics Initiative Presents:

Hacking Big Data:

Discovering Vulnerabilities in a Sociotechnical Society

Dr. danah boyd

Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research ¦ Founder of Data & Society Institute

March 6, 2018 ¦ Moody College of Communication ¦ University of Texas at Austin



Dr. danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the founder and president of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University. Her research is focused on addressing social and cultural inequities by understanding the relationship between technology and society. Her most recent books – “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” and “Participatory Culture in a Networked Age” – examine the intersection of everyday practices and social media. She is a 2011 Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Director of both Crisis Text Line and Social Science Research Council, and a Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian. She received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Brown University, a master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab, and a Ph.D in Information from the University of California, Berkeley. This event was co-sponsored by the Global Media Industry Speaker Series.

Follow the Media Ethics Initiative on Facebook and Twitter (@EthicsOfMedia)


Free Speech and the Ethics of Protest

CASE STUDY: This Bake Sale Got Burnt

Case Study PDF — Additional Case Studies

Many institutions consider issues of ethnicity along with academic achievement to determine admission decisions. The University of Texas at Austin admissions process uses an individualized holistic review that takes into account the applicant’s class rank in high school, SAT/ACT scores, record of achievements, honors, work and service in and out of school, socioeconomic status, cultural background, race and ethnicity, as well as recommendations and the competitiveness of the major to which the student applies. This program, labeled by some as “affirmative action,” at the flagship school of the University of Texas system was not without its critics. The Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) orchestrated a “bake sale” on October 26, 2016 in the popular West Mall area in order to demonstrate how these affirmative action considerations are unjust. The day before the bake sale, the YCT posted the following comment on their Facebook page:

YCT is a truly colorblind organization and believes that all government institutions are constitutionally prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race in all circumstances, including affirmative action. Join us in the West Mall for a not so traditional bake sale! Our bake sale will have a tiered pricing method intended to illustrate this disastrous policy that demeans minorities on our campus by placing labels of race and gender on their accomplishments.

During the demonstration, the YCT priced baked goods based on the potential buyer’s gender and race. Prices were the highest for Asian men who had to pay $1.50 for a cookie. Native Americans, both male and female, could take home a cookie for free. This was YCT’s attempt to show the preferential treatment they believe is taking place in the application process.

Katie Bauer photo

Photo: Katie Bauer

This provocative display did not go unnoticed. Many Texas students were furious with the bake sale, arguing that it was racist. One of outraged students commented, “This is offensive, ignorant, ahistorical, inaccurate, and bigoted.” Over 300 students surrounded the bake sale table and drowned out the appeals of the YCT’s demonstration with shouts of “Racists go home!” The table was eventually flipped over and the YCT members were forced to evacuate. Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, the Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, sent out a statement saying the methods of the YCT are inflammatory and demeaning. He argued that they created an environment of exclusion and disrespect through their display in the West Mall, a place where students typically exhibit respect for each other while speaking their viewpoints. Dr. Vincent ended his official statement on behalf of the university by voicing his opinion that the even though the YCT has a right to free speech, it is “deplorable” that they took advantage of this space to direct negative sentiments toward their peers. Not only were students expressing themselves on social media, the President of the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Gregory Fenves, also tweeted his disapproval: ‘’[The] ‘Bake Sale’ does not reflect UT values. Diversity and inclusion will always be top priorities.”

Those who were in charge of the bake sale believed that they were presenting their stance on the issue of affirmative action in a strategic and clear way, even if it was controversial. YCT’s chairman, Vidal Castañeda, stated, “It is insane that institutional racism, such as affirmative action, continues to allow for universities to judge me by the color of my skin rather than my actions … YCT-UT will not be deterred by liberal elites that would love nothing more than to silence conservative, common sense voices on campus.” Another supporter explained, “I applaud this effort of exposing the truth. Affirmative action is unfair.” YCT’s president, Lorenzo Garcia, argued that they hoped to demonstrate that “It may be demeaning to minorities to say that they need affirmative action to succeed” and that “A society cannot truly be color blind until they stop making decisions based on race.”

By placing race and gender into a hierarchy of importance in this protest, many observers felt attacked and offended by the YCT. Yet many would consider offense and provocation to be a sign of a successful public campaign of advocacy and agitation for social change. The YCT demonstration was meant to be a very visible call for action concerning an issue its members judged as extremely important. Were their creative and provocative communicative tactics half-baked, or perfectly done given the importance they placed on this issue? 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should the YCT have formulated their protest method in this specific way? Why or why not?
  1. What are the important ethical decisions that must be made by a group intent on protesting a controversial issue?
  1. What are the important decisions that counter-protesters have to make in responding to a controversial demonstration? What values or standards of ethical conduct guide ethical responses to controversial protests?
  1. How should a university and its officials respond to unpopular acts of protests on its campus?
  1. What makes a protest or demonstration both ethical and effective? Are there ways that these two values might come into conflict? How would you resolve such conflicts in demonstrating on an important, but controversial, issue?

Further Information:

Gregory J. Vincent, “Statement Regarding YCT Affirmative Action Bake Sale from Dr. Gregory J. Vincent.” October 26, 2016. Available at:

Sophie Lewis, “UT Young Conservatives host Affirmative Action Bake Sale.” CNN, October 28, 2016. Available at:

The University of Texas at Austin, “Freshman Application Review.” 2018. Available at:

Van Nguyen, “Anti-affirmative Action Bake Sale causes Protest, sparks Discussion.” The Daily Texan, October 27, 2016. Available at:


Morgan Malouf & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
February 14, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

News Media and Democracy

Watch the Media Ethics Initiative talk by Dr. Talia Stroud (University of Texas at Austin) on “Engaging Newsrooms in the Digital Age!” Find out more about her research at the Center for Media Engagement.






Ethics and the Tweeter-in-Chief

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Presidential Communication

Case Study PDF Additional Case Studies

 Social media is a double-edged sword in many ways. Many companies use social media to advertise their products or services to reach a broader realm of consumers, and many consumers share their own thoughts about companies and products judged as worthy for others to buy or to avoid. More so than ordinary users, celebrities often receive a lot of attention for who they promote and don’t support over different social networking sites. Matters of well-known people posting about companies they do not approve of became even more complex when the businessman and celebrity, Donald Trump, was elected president in 2016. Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump took to his twitter account to post his opinion on the major department store Nordstrom. This was brought about by to their decision to remove Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from their stores.

trump twitter image

This tweet was noticed. It generated thousands of shares, likes, and comments. In terms of market impact, CNN noted that “Nordstrom shares dipped a negligible 20 cents a share on the initial tweet, rebounding soon after and closing the day up 4 percent.” Nordstrom responded to the President’s tweet by emphasizing “the non-political nature of its decision to drop the Ivanka Trump line,” but this didn’t stop some people from responding with promises to boycott Nordstrom as a brand. Perhaps motivated by anti-Trump ire, some voiced their support for the store’s decision.

For a simple tweet, the waves this post created were quite strong. Making this matter more complex is that fact that a sitting American President is the one issuing this derogatory review of Nordstrom as a brand. Some believe that such opinions are below the dignity of the office of President. Specifically, CNBC pointed to the fact that “we’ve never seen a president as willing to criticize American companies as Trump has in the year since Election Day.” They also noted that previous presidents have not been as outspoken as President Trump is on social media. Others worry about the President’s power to voice his opinions about companies in a way that could impact their economic well-being. People tend to listen to and attribute power to the President, and “Nordstrom had reason to worry: Previous tweets from Mr. Trump calling out other brands, such as Lockheed Martin, had hurt share prices.”

Alternatively, presidents maintain the ability to speak their mind on matters they judge politically or socially important. For instance, President Obama took to Twitter in August 2015 and voiced his displeasure about the adverse effects of climate change with his tweet that said, “I refuse to condemn our kids to a planet that’s beyond fixing. Let’s meet this challenge and #ActOnClimate together.” In addition, President Trump and his supporters could see his opinionated tweets as possibly improving the public and the overall prosperity of the American economy.

As a company, Nordstrom was put at risk due to President Trump’s public tweets of disapproval in response to their public actions that had targeted Ivanka Trump and her product line. The President had reason to think this was an obvious way to respond to an economically harmful acts against his daughter, but his actions as Tweeter-in-Chief only add more dimensions to the debates over what constitutes ethical communication strategies by someone as powerful as the President.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Twitter is a quick and easy way to get messages out to masses of people. Should the President use twitter for important messages?
  1. What was the ethical problem, if any, with President Trump’s use of Twitter to criticize Nordstrom? Does Nordstrom’s action toward Ivanka Trump’s clothing line make any ethical difference in your analysis of the President’s Tweeting?
  1. Do the ethical obligations and concerns with free speech change when that speech is exercised by the U.S. President?
  1. What if the President wanted to praise Nordstrom for some action they did that pleased him? Would your ethical evaluation of presidential tweeting change?
  1. Is there any relevant difference between a president voicing their displeasure over some company or entity in a speech and a president tweeting such negative thoughts?

Further Information:

Janet Morrissey, “Brands heed Social Media. They’re advised not to forget Word of Mouth.” New York Times, November 26, 2017. Available at:

Eamon Javers, “Trump holds an Unprecedented Presidential Power.” CNBC, November 8, 2017. Available at:

Irina Ivanova, “President complains Nordstrom treated Daughter’s Business ‘Unfairly.’” CBS News, February 8, 2017. Available at:


Anna Rose Isbell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics InitiativeUniversity of Texas at Austin
February 8, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

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