Public health, private grief: how should journos report suicide?

How to cover suicide has always been a contentious issue for journalists. EPA/JANOS MARJAI HUNGARY OUT

While fans were in collective mourning over the untimely death of Robin Williams, American TV channel Fox News’ Shepard Smith was making profuse apologies for calling the comedian a “coward” after his death by suicide.

Smith had the decency to apologise for his gaffe – but others did not see a problem with bulldozing a path through the highly sensitive topic of suicide.

News Digital appeared to hold no qualms about publicising the details of Williams’ death, nor did The Courier Mail or The New York Times. A wave of criticism flared up on social media last night with calls of “too much information”.

How to cover suicide has always been a contentious issue for journalists. It goes to the very heart of the journalistic dilemma – how to uphold the professional value of “full disclosure” while at the same time “doing no harm”.

Reporting the death of Robn Williams, the news media is torn between its duty to, in the words of the industry’s union and professional association, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA): “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts” and its ethical obligation to “respect private grief”.

Public discussion of suicide

Traditionally, the news media avoided covering suicide. Of course when a celebrity died by suicide, exceptions were made. Recall the sensational reporting of the suicide of Kurt Cobain or Ian Curtis. News stories about celebrity suicide often included explicit details and and sometimes involved the insensitive pursuit of grieving family members.

But when a person with no public profile died by suicide, even the word was taboo. The concern was that coverage of suicide in the news media might provoke suicidal behaviour in vulnerable audiences.

This argument is not without merit. Internationally, studies suggest certain news practices – notably, sensationalism and glamorisation – are dangerous when reporting suicide. In 2000, the World Health Organisation found these news practices could lead to “copycat” acts.

This is why, traditionally, journalists would either resort to euphemisms – “police said there were no suspicious circumstance” – or avoid the story altogether. In other words, journalists would undertake one of industry’s big “no-nos”; self-censorship.

The problem here, however, was the fact that by either sensationalising incidences of celebrity suicide or ignoring cases of suicide among those with a lesser public profile, the community in general was getting a distorted view of suicide. This goes against all journalistic beliefs in “truth” and “honesty”. As the MEAA’s very first clause in its Code of Ethics says:

Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.

Suicide is one of Australia’s most significant public health issues – but it was something you’d rarely read about in a newspaper.

In June 2010, a Senate inquiry produced a report titled The Hidden Toll: Suicide in Australia, which found a desperate need for research into media coverage of suicide.

In the same year, South Australian Coroner Mark Johns went so far as to call for suicide rates to be published in the press.

This public discussion about media coverage of suicide generated a series of guidelines to help reporters. These have been developed by a variety of government and industry bodies including the Mindframe Media Initiative, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the Press Council, as well as individual news outlets.

And the common theme among these is avoiding publication of method, location and details of incidences of suicide, along with the normal rules of reporting with responsibility and balance, with sensitivity and moderation, and publishing details of support services. The reporting of Robin Williams’ death makes it clear that not all journalists and their editors have read or respected these guidelines.

But some have – and there are important examples where reporting on suicide has contributed to community awareness of this major public health issue.

Best case practice

In 2009, the death of 14-year-old Chanelle Rae rocked the provincial Victorian community of Geelong. Chanelle was the fourth teenager from Western Heights College to take her own life within six months. The local newspaper, News Limited’s Geelong Advertiser, could have followed the traditional path and covered Chanelle’s death obliquely or, indeed, ignored the event altogether.

But according to Advertiser journalist Danny Lannen, the circumstances surrounding this event meant it “could not be ignored”. Lannen spoke to me in 2010 about the case:

Chanelle’s story certainly captured a lot of attention, with the cyber-bullying, but it was the number that had [died from suicide] before … That background knowledge, and my feelings about it, certainly helped drive and mobilise the coverage, in the sense that it was an issue that had to be elevated. Enough was enough! How long could we ignore this?

Armed with the Mindframe Media Initiative’s guidelines, the Geelong Advertiser worked with community leaders and mental health professionals on its coverage, and even went so far as to lead community campaigns to raise awareness of suicide, resulting in Lannen winning several industry awards. The R U OK Day and Walk Against Suicide are now regular annual events in Geelong.

“We reported with a measure of conviction,” Lannen said. “We sort of treated it as an agency for change in terms of bringing down these [cyber-bullying] websites, and getting people talking about suicide, and doing something about stopping it.”

In 2012, another regional newspaper, Albury-Wodonga’s Border Mail, won two Walkley for its reporting on suicide issues, including a commendation for journalism leadership. It took a similarly consultative approach and involved the community in its discussions of suicide.

They were following in the footsteps of The Age. In 2004 the newspaper was heralded for its coverage of suicide, which was then, as the 2010 Senate Inquiry had established, a taboo subject. It devoted a whole series to the topic of male suicide – and took some care to explain why.

The reporting of Robin Williams’ death shows that many journalists still have a lot to learn. But both the Border Mail and the Geelong Advertiser show that media outlets can play an important role in their communities and make a constructive contribution to public awareness of suicide.

If you have depression or feel very low, please seek support immediately. For support in a crisis, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. For information about depression and suicide prevention, visit beyondblue, Sane or The Samaritans.