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Getting serious when reporting Suicides - Ethics is the only Solution

Suicide is a public health and Mental Health issue and the reporting of suicide cases need to be handled sensitively by the media keeping in mind some guidelines.

Many a times people have a difficult time understanding why the words we use are so important, especially on a topic like suicide. How often do these questions cross our mind - How can one suicide lead to another? How can conversations, articles, personal stories and media coverage about suicide carry so much influence? The fact is: how the media decides to talk about, write about and report on suicide matters. For someone already considering suicide, it’s possible to change their thoughts into action by exposing them to detailed suicide-related content, including graphic depictions or explanations of the death or revealing the method used.

Suicide is a public health issue. Media and online coverage of suicide should be informed by using best practice as this negatively contribute to copy-cat behaviour, or positively contribute to encourage help-seeking.

Without careful reporting, news of a suicide can disturb those who are already feeling vulnerable and hopeless. It can model for them how to deal with that hopelessness in the most negative and tragic way. In recent years, public health studies have found an association between news reports about suicides, especially those of high-profile public figures, and an increase in suicide deaths. It’s no secret to mental health experts that exposure to suicide, either directly or through media and entertainment, may make people more likely to resort to suicidal behaviours themselves. This is often referred to as the suicide contagion - a phenomenon in which exposure to suicide through someone’s family, peer group, or through the media increases the odds of other people, especially those who are vulnerable into harming or killing themselves. The people affected by suicide contagion are likely already thinking about suicide. They may be experiencing a mental illness or substance use disorder or be going through some turbulent life situations and stresses and then they’re prompted to end their life because of what they saw on social media while scrolling through their news feed. In other words, suicide is usually the result of a multitude of factors - and the media’s irresponsible reporting can be one of them.

To prevent such repercussions, there are few ethical guidelines which the media can keep as a ready reckoner when it comes to reporting suicides. They are as follows:

  • Language is so very important. Any language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide or even goes out to present it as a solution to problems must be avoided at all costs. It is important to not refer to suicide as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or a “failed attempt.” It is generally advised to refrain from using the phrases “committed suicide,” as it implies criminal behaviour, and “took his/her own life,” as it often is part of dramatic or emotional constructions, and instead consider using “died by suicide” or “ended his/her life” or even “killed himself/herself” instead. The media must also avoid describing suicide as an “escape” for a person who has ended their life.

  • The use of imagery can be important, and visual cliché or scene recreations should be avoided. It is recommended to not use images of the location or method of death, grieving loved ones, memorials or funerals; instead use school, work or family photos. It is also better to avoid photos that invoke melancholy. Images should be selected carefully as at times visuals of a person who appears peaceful, calm and serene send a message that suicide will get you to that peaceful place.

  • While it is tempting to provide a lot of detail, it is best to refrain from details on how the act was carried out. By avoiding giving a lot of detail, there is a better chance of reducing the potential copycat effect. If there was a note from the deceased, it is in good judgment to not reveal its contents or refer to it as a “suicide note.”

  • There is a pressing need to be considerate towards those who have been bereaved at the time and the media need to respect and understand their grief and privacy at the time. A decision to interview someone who has been bereaved by suicide of a loved one should not be taken lightly as they are at a increased risk of suicide themselves and are working through grief and related issues.

  • In covering news about mental health in general, media should be careful to use verified information from people in a position to know better. A neighbour who says a person “was acting weird” or a police constable at site who says a suspect “is understood to have mental issues” are not giving verified information or being specific about the issues involved. Mental health practitioners and medical authorities should be consulted instead. References to people as “mentally ill” should come from authoritative mental health, law enforcement or family sources in a position to describe the conditions involved.

  • It is important to keep in mind that the main message of any article, video or TV show about suicide should be to encourage people to get help when they need it and where to look for that help by including local and national hotline numbers or other crisis resources which are reliable. It is also advisable to include messaging that suicide is not a natural or logical outcome of adversity and is preventable.

  • The media need to understand and avoid treating suicide as an entertainment story but as what it truly is: a health (and specifically a Mental Health story). There is a need to understand and communicate that suicide quite often arises from treatable mental health conditions which are curable with proper professional help. Celebrity suicides are clearly newsworthy and reporting them is often regarded as being in the public interest. However, reports of suicides by famous entertainers and political figures are particularly likely to influence the behaviour of vulnerable individuals, because they are revered by the community. Glorifying a celebrity’s death may suggest that society honours suicidal behaviour.

Overall, it can be said that as with any death, journalists should be sensitive to the feelings of the bereaved; but when an individual has taken their own life there is the added consideration of how media coverage can affect others who may be struggling and feeling suicidal. Careful news coverage of suicide as both an event and a public health issue can correct misperceptions and debunk myths. Instead of merely sensationalising, this is an opportunity for the media to educate their audiences about this issue.

Suicide is not a subject that should be avoided, but rather, handled pragmatically, carefully and thoughtfully - because this is not a matter of being “politically correct.” It’s a matter of saving lives.


Written by: Vedica Podar

August, 2020


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