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reporting suicide in the media

01 December 2008

The media's treatment of suicide cases was discussed last week at a seminar organised by the Press Complaints Commission in conjunction with the think tank Polis. Following a year in which there has been much debate around the coverage of suicides in and around Bridgend, the event brought together editors and journalists, academics, lawyers and specialists from the mental health sector to reflect on the issue more widely.

All contributors agreed that the media had an important role to play in providing a public record of deaths by suicide. Indeed, responsible media reporting is vital as one means of reducing the stigma that is still attached to suicide. Specialists from the suicide-prevention field spoke about the positive working relationships they had developed with the PCC .

View from the industry

The role of the press in reporting suicide was defended by a number of contributors from the industry. Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors explained that although the media would never want to encourage copycat activity or glorify suicide, it was nonetheless right for journalists to ask difficult and sometimes provocative questions in their coverage.

The Press Association's Mike Dodd explained that the media takes considerable care to ensure that published information is accurate and will often decide not to publish information because it believes that to be the right thing to do.

The seminar heard from Madeleine Moon, MP for Bridgend, who was concerned that the press had focussed too much on the individual stories of those who took their own lives in Bridgend, rather than trying to explain the "bigger picture". But industry representatives countered that this approach was a practical response to the desire of readers to know about human beings.

Areas for improvement

Anthony Langan, Samaritans' Public Affairs Manager, stressed that suicide should not be dramatised or normalised by the media in a way that may legitimise the act. The LSE's Sonia Livingstone agreed, highlighting the importance of responsible ‘framing' of stories by the media. There was, she argued, a difference between simply presenting the facts and over-dramatising a story.

A number of speakers raised the issue of copycat suicides. Professor Keith Hawton, from Oxford University 's Suicide Research Unit, explained that suicide was a complex phenomenon and that there were no easy explanations behind an individual's decision to end his or her life. But there was, he said, a strong correlation between the publication of detail about how someone died and a corresponding rise in suicides using the same method, which he illustrated with a couple of well-documented examples. The availability of unregulated information on the internet was also a significant area of concern.

The international situation

Odd Isungset, Chairman of the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission gave a fascinating overview of the Norwegian Code of Practice which, until recently, banned the reporting of suicide. This extreme provision meant that when the Norwegian Prime Minister's son took his life in 1992, no media outlet reported it. This proved to be a turning point for the Norwegian press and the Norwegian PCC 's Code was subsequently amended. It now reads:

"Be cautious when reporting on suicide and attempted suicide. Avoid reporting that is not necessary for meeting a general need for information. Avoid description of methods or other matters that may contribute to provoking further suicidal actions" - wording which was praised by a number of delegates as striking just the right tone.

Next steps

Tim Toulmin (PCC Director) and Trevor Barnes (Ofcom's Senior Standards Manager) described the responsibilities of the UK's media regulators and noted that today's journalists can draw on a wealth of practical information about suicide to help inform and guide their reporting. Tim Toulmin revealed that the revised Editors' Codebook, to be published in the new year, is to contain an extended section on suicide reporting. The Samaritans' own media guidelines also provide a comprehensive guide to the subject.

Delegates agreed that further discussion was essential to gain a greater understanding of the media's role in dealing with cases of suicide. It was also agreed that effective training of journalists is vital. In a challenging and fast-moving media environment, journalists should be equipped with the knowledge to report on this subject with the honesty and sensitivity it deserves.