A Reflection on Professional Issues in Journalism- Covering Incidents of Suicide

As Stephen Lamble said in News as it happens: An Introduction to Journalism, “a journalist’s central function is to seek the truth and pass it on to their community”. Press freedom, freedom on the public sphere, transparency, accuracy and full disclosure are key to a journalist’s belief system. When dealing with ethical issues though, there is an inherent conflict between these beliefs and the need to do no harm. There is the responsibility of the journalist to be sensitive and to report on the issue in a way that would be beneficial to the public. This conflict is a difficult one for all journalists but there are ways to report effectively on suicide.

In the past, there was almost a double standard in how journalists reported on suicide. When the deceased person was an ordinary member of the public, journalists would only refer to suicide as “no suspicious circumstances”. But if a celebrity or someone noteworthy had died, the media would sensationalise the incident often to the point of indecency. This inconsistency resulted in journalists being hated by the public for their coverage. It also increased rates of suicide.

The media’s influence on suicide rates is called the Werther Effect. In 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. The plot centred on a young man who falls in love with a woman who doesn’t return his feelings. He is heartbroken and commits suicide. This novel was widely popular and as Erlangsen said in Media reporting on suicide: Challenges and Opportunities, “following the book’s publication, an epidemic of suicides was reported among young men. In some cases they used the same method of suicide or had the book placed near them.” This scenario extends towards the media as well. According to Pirkis and Blood, “there is an association between non-fictional media portrayal of suicide and actual suicide.” Although there is this risk, journalists still need to cover suicide cases because it is newsworthy and in the public interest.

The health industry realised speaking about suicide as a public health issue could potentially stem the ‘epidemic’ and discourage ‘copy-cat’ behaviour. They realised the public was not understanding the warning signs and was unaware of support services. They knew the media could be a platform to inform people of the issue. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “the age-standardised suicide rate in 2010 was 10.5 deaths per 100,000 population, a decrease from the 12.7 deaths per 100,000 population recorded in 2001.” This decrease coincides with changes made by the Australian government on how the media reports on suicide.

In 2002, Mindframe National Media Initiative released the Australian Guidelines for Reporting Suicide. These guidelines have provided a basis for how and when journalists should report on suicide. According to Mindframe, “reporting that focuses on suicide as a health and community issue helps to increase community awareness and decrease stigma.” As such, the list of guidelines state:

  • Do not give undue prominence to reports on suicide
  • Avoid repeated coverage of suicides
  • Avoid using the word “suicide” as part of a headline
  • Avoid using photographs and television footage relating to suicide
  • Do not portray suicide as a romantic or glamorous solution to problems
  • Treat the bereaved with sensitivity, and respect their privacy
  • Avoid discussion of the method of self harm used and the location of the incident
  • Avoid using language which suggests that completed suicide is a desirable outcome
  • Provide statistical information and contact details of support services such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue

These changes have resulted in some great pieces of ethical journalism. Geelong Advertiser feature writer Danny Lannnen wrote a series of articles reporting on the suicide of Tamil asylum seeker Leo Seemanpillai. They were published throughout June 2014 and respectfully and ethically covered the situation. As Geelong Advertiser editor Nick Papps said, “Danny told the story of this young man’s death with enormous compassion and gave this tragic event a true local, national and global focus. Danny’s sensitivity and compassion allowed this powerful story to be told with grace, dignity and power.” His three articles on the incident spoke more about Leo as person- his journey as an asylum seeker, his struggles with mental health and the faults of the Australian refugee policy. By doing this, Lannen made the story a real world issue and prevented Leo from becoming just another suicide statistic. His work was extremely well received and was shortlisted for a Walkley Award.

The tutorial exercise allowed us to understand the challenges journalists face when reporting on suicide. The fictional scenario was about an 18-year-old schoolboy who had committed suicide by hanging himself outside his school. There was footage of interviews a journalist had conducted with the two boys who discovered the deceased, the police officer at the scene and the mother of the boy. Watching how the journalist accosted the interviews and the state of the interviewees made me question the ethics of the journalist. I also had to consider the quotes we should, and should not, use. The mother and the young boys were obviously in shock from the incident. I didn’t use any quotes from the boys and only comments like “he was a good boy” and “we all miss him so much” from the mother. This is because I believe she would have said these comments about her son even if the scenario was different. To make sure it was discussed as a public health issue, statistics on suicide were used throughout the article. I also ended the piece with the contact details of support services, Lifeline and Kids Helpline.

Although there is the inherent conflict between full disclosure and do no harm, it is important that certain cases of suicide are covered by journalists. It is still a relevant issue today as the Australian Bureau of Statistics has said, “From 2009 to 2013, the average number of suicide deaths per year was 2461.” This high statistic proves the media and public health sector’s work is not over. Journalists must continue to inform the public of suicide in an ethical manner to prevent the trend from increasing again.


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