REPORTING on suicides has always been a vexed issue for the media.
Conventional wisdom and previous media reporting guidelines said the subject was best avoided for fear accounts might encourage other vulnerable people to follow suit. As a result, the phrase “no suspicious circumstances” in media reports of a sudden death has for decades been code for suicide.
Mind you, the media’s restraint in this area has tended to be inversely proportional to the interest the public is likely to have in a particular person’s death — which is not at all the same as the “public interest”.
As soon as a celebrity is involved, it’s all too easy for the principles of responsible reporting to fly out the window, even though you might expect the risk of copycat suicides to be even greater in that situation.
Nobody is arguing that sensationalist, gossip-driven reporting has any merit at all, but there has been a push in recent times for more open public discussion of suicide.
Some mental health advocates argue the silence that has traditionally shrouded the issue does no service to those struggling with suicidal thoughts, or the grieving families and friends of those who have completed the act.
Nor does it encourage the kind of public debate that can provide momentum for action to address causes.
Melbourne psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry is one who has argued the issue should be given the same prominence as road deaths, with media organisations publishing the suicide toll to bring attention to the scale of this largely preventable problem.
Suicide is estimated to take the lives of around 2000 Australians each year — several hundred more than die on the roads — and a 2010 Senate report also recommended regular public release of these figures to increase community awareness.
The growing consensus that it’s time for a more open discussion has prompted various bodies to consider how the risks and benefits of media coverage can best be managed.
A group of organisations including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month released new recommendations that address the ways coverage of suicide can influence behaviours — whether negatively, through the “contagion” effect, or positively, by encouraging people to seek help.
The recommendations point out that more than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals, and that the magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.
They go on to advise that “Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help”, and give direction for constructive reporting, while advising against use of graphic headlines or descriptions of methods used.
The Australian Press Council also released new standards last year that said there could be a “substantial public benefit” from reporting of the issue.
“It may help to improve public understanding of causes and warning signs, have a deterrent effect on people contemplating suicide, bring comfort to affected relatives or friends, or promote further public or private action to prevent suicide”, the standards say.
Of course, a lot of news about suicide these days probably doesn’t come from the mainstream media at all.
Many people would first hear of the death of a celebrity or someone they know from Facebook or other social media sites where speculation and graphic detail can run rife, far from the reach of regulatory bodies.
But it seems that just makes it more important for traditional media organisations to speak out, offering a more responsible perspective on the issue.
Centuries of shame and secrecy may have hidden suicide from view, but they have certainly not made it go away. It’s time to try something different.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
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