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How should the media report suicide?

Are editorial guidelines on reporting suicide fit for purpose?

Last week I did something I’ve never done before: I made a formal complaint about a newspaper story. The article, on a national newspaper’s website, was about a well-known singer’s suicide.

I’m not going to name and shame the journalist or newspaper here, but here’s how the article was unfair, unhelpful and potentially detrimental:

  • Included very specific details of the means of death, including in the heading / intro. These appeared on the site’s front page (as lead story) while it was breaking news.
  • Talked about the singer ‘committing suicide’ (suicide is not illegal in the UK now; it’s not a crime that someone commits)
  • Sensationalised the story through language and story angle, plus ‘body bag’ photos
  • Speculated on causes or incentives, i.e., the suicide – using identical means – of a close friend previously (also pictured).

REPORTING SUICIDE

There are no laws about reporting suicide. Instead, there are good practice guidelines designed to help publications be fair and ethical in their reporting. Here’s what the IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) Editors’ Code of Practice advises:

“When reporting suicide, to prevent simulative acts care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media’s right to report legal proceedings.”

That, as it turns out, is the entire scope of guidance on reporting suicide – that’s all there is. And, some clauses – including that relating to reporting suicide – are marked with an asterisk, indicating that an editor may breach the clause if they can demonstrate it’s in the public interest.

Listening support charity Samaritans goes into far more practical detail. These are their guidelines on reporting celebrity deaths (they’re self-explanatory as to why we have a duty of care in reporting on suicide ethically):

  • Be mindful that celebrity suicides have a higher risk of encouraging imitational suicidal behaviour, particularly if the media coverage is extensive and sensationalist.
  • Avoid explicit details of the suicide method e.g. do not describe how the person died or what material was used (ideally, do not report the method of suicide at all).
  • Avoid placement of stories on the front page with large headlines, or making this the lead bulletin, as this can sensationalise the story.
  • Avoid speculation of causes or simplistic explanations – bear in mind that suicide is complex and seldom the result of a single factor, it is likely to have several inter-related causes.
  • Please avoid making unsubstantiated links between separate incidents, for example by including photographs of those who have died.
  • Where possible sensitively focus on the life achievements of the person and try to portray the tragic wastefulness of their death. Try to refer to the wider issues associated with suicide, such as risk factors like alcohol and drug misuse or mental health problems.

Do guidelines help?

The article I complained about ignored each of Samaritans’ good practice clauses; it even breached the single IPSO clause (presumably on the ‘public interest’ argument). But, while there’s plenty of guidance out there, whether newspapers adhere to it is often entirely up to them.

I don’t know enough about IPSO to take pot shots at them; so that’s not what that article is about. But my complaint to them – which was not upheld – leaves me wondering what the point of guidelines are when they’re so vague as to be non-existent, and there’s no incentive to abide by them (especially in the race to get more views, clicks and advertising revenue).

IPSO replaced the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. The Inquiry in turn came about following the News International phone hacking scandal. IPSO then came into being as an independent regulatory body. Not all newspapers are members of IPSO and, IPSO only handles complaints about member publications. Interestingly, IPSO is itself funded by those members – though it carries out its work independently of them.

Non-member publications – the Guardian and BBC – for instance, have their own complaints procedure, which happens via internal bodies and procedures.

While anyone can theoretically complain to IPSO, in practice unless a story is about you, or someone you’re related to, you can only take issue against inaccurate reporting. All other 15 clauses are not open to complaint by members of the general public.

Perhaps that’s as it should be – but again, it does mean that without direct intervention by ‘the first party’, it’s up to editors to regulate themselves. And clearly in publishing a story, they’ve already considered and jettisoned the limits of good practice. Arguably, of course, they may well say that they welcome complaints in the interests of scrutiny and standards … which makes for a nice merry-go-round of activity with no definite action – unless they break the law.

When it’s good and fair, journalism plays an important role in society – it informs us, and entertains us, and both of those things are valuable. We’ve reached a strange crossroads in what ‘news’ actually constitutes, however; the way we as news ‘consumers’ perceive and experience death in print and online is changing. It’s relatively easy to see real people dead or dying on-screen – and that’s a much bigger issue when it comes to reporting the news sensitively and accurately. It’s hard to believe that ‘good practice’ alone is fit for the challenge.

Resources for journalists

Samaritans: Media Guidelines for the Reporting of Suicide

National Union of Journalists

McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists (book)

IPSO rulings and resolutions


CREDITS & COPYRIGHT

Words: my own. All rights reserved: no copying, pasting or re-using without permission.

Man reading newspaper: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

 

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