When Robin Williams took his own life in August 2014, the world was shocked by the report. Each year, around 6000 people take their own life through suicide, with a further 10,000 plus attempts across the UK. In some cases, suicide can attracts media attention, throwing up a unique set of challenges to any reporter. The need to decide what is public interest without risk of encouraging imitative behaviour as well as not to intrude the lives of the bereaved and applying the industry regulation and codes of practice are just a few of the considerations needed to produce ethical and truthful articles.
Suicide is an issue of public health and social inequality, it is more common in specific groups like men, lower socio-economic groups and the ages of 30-50 and it accounts for more deaths than road collisions. Research shows that the inappropriate reporting of suicide can initiate copycat behaviour in vulnerable groups, but help groups and organisations such as The Samaritans have worked closely with the media to outline a set of guidelines when reporting on sensitive cases. In 2013, The Samaritans issued the 5th edition of their guidelines to the media when reporting on suicide. With the intention of advising and guiding journalists into making responsible and ethical decisions when writing their articles, here are a few of the main points:
- Thinking about the impact on an audience
When writing a report on sensitive media, it is imperative for a journalist to consider the impact of their article on the audience. Stories that are particularly upsetting and sensitive call for a different approach than hard hitting journalism. Journalists must consider the impact of their content on vulnerable groups and individuals, the family or anyone connected to the victim and anyone impacted by suicide in particular. This calls for a journalist to seek accurate information about both the victim and the death, then filtering anything that could be seen as influential and emphasising the help that is available.
- Take caution when referring to the methods and context of a suicide
Research has shown that the way that suicide is reported in the media can directly influence others to imitate the behaviour of the suicide. Journalists are encouraged to limit the detail in the methods of suicide, especially when the case is unusual, using only umbrella terms such as hanged or overdosed but not detailing the violence or quantity of tablets for example. This both reduces the possibility for copycats and respects the grief of those affected. When reporting, journalists are also encouraged to not include references to the reasons for the suicide, especially if they are life circumstances. Alluding the suicide to financial problems or divorce runs the risk of others who are in that situation to identify with the problems and potentially copy. The Samaritans advise the media against using phrases like ‘quick, easy and painless’ or ‘certain to result in death’ as this can be seen to glorify suicide as a method of coping, again which could encourage the vulnerable.
- Avoid over-simplifying the case
Around 90% of suicide victims have been diagnosed or undiagnosed with a mental health problem at the time of death. The over-simplification of these causes can be misleading and do not reflect the complexity of the reasons for suicide. It is important to not to skim past the complexities of a suicide as attributing it to one particular event can have devastating impacts on anyone affected. For example, if a journalist generalises the cause to a divorce, an ex-partner could feel completely responsible for a victim’s death, it is advised to journalists to maintain a professional distance from the personal side to the case as it is too easily misinterpreted.
- Don’t over dramatise suicide
When reporting about the response to a suicide, The Samaritans encourage journalists not to sensationalise a community expression of grief. Although the impact of suicide affects a great number of people, suggesting so could make it sound as though they are honouring the suicidal behaviour instead of mourning the loss of someone. A professional piece on suicide should explore the emotional and physical impact that suicide has on family and friends, without being too intrusive into their grief. Explaining this devastation could prompt someone with suicidal thoughts to seek help. However, this simple way of reporting is not always the best way, if a celebrity commits suicide, a report is more so an account of how the world has been shocked and moved as we were when Robin Williams passed away, this community grief is more of a paying of respect than sensationalising suicide.
- Aim for sensitive coverage
It is important for journalists to maintain a professional tone throughout the piece, as well as writing in a sensitive style. It is advised to refrain from labelling geographical locations as ‘hot spots’, links between suicide cases cannot be concretised without proof, speculating this kind of information can put vulnerable people in that area at greater risk. Again when thinking about the audience, suicide should not be reported as if it achieves results, for example, if a bully was made to apologise for having a role in a suicide, it should not be reported as if that is a positive outcome for the case, anyone affected by suicide can be under immense pressure and guilt, journalists should not add to that. Journalists are also encouraged to respect the privacy of a family affected by suicide, if a note is left, the contents should not be reported as this could be devastating for a family to have to share a loved ones last words with the public.
- Finally, aim to educate the audience
It is hoped that the media will begin to play a more positive role in the awareness of suicide as a public health issue. Journalists should aim to inform the public about suicide, the warning signs and raising the awareness of the help available to anyone suffering with suicidal thought, this could potentially lead to the decrease in deaths by suicide. When it is possible, it is advised that journalists mention the wider issues that are associated with suicide such as alcohol misuse, mental health problems and depression. By discussing these issues, it can help to encourage a better understanding about suicide, as well as the help that is available to anyone who is suffering with the symptoms of depression or suicidal thoughts.
Although reporting on suicide is both a difficult and upsetting task for journalists, following simple guidelines make writing the article more simple and professional. Help groups such as The Samaritans working together with the media have created a way for journalists to make ethical and responsible decisions when writing about sensitive media, which still allow them to do their job correctly.