Tread carefully: revised guidelines for better reporting of suicide deaths

Australian Press Council guidelines are binding for 98% of all print publications. Bright Meadow/Flickr

The Australian Press Council (APC) has released guidelines for reporting about suicides for the print media today. They are binding for around 98% of Australian newspapers and magazines.

The guidelines articulate some of the differences between reporting on the broader issue of suicide and the reporting of individual deaths.

These revised guidelines still ask for considered and sensitive reporting of individual deaths by suicide, which should be done where there’s clear public interest to do so and informed consent by family.

This is in contrast to a recent article by Professor Patrick McGorry, The sort of conversation we should be having about suicide that suggested suicide should be routinely covered by journalists.

It also suggested that, as with the road toll, we should “report a tally of suicide deaths”.

But while we need to support community conversations, routinely reporting suicide deaths like road deaths is not the way forward.

A recent critical evidence review confirms there’s a strong association between media representations of suicide deaths and actual suicidal behaviour.

This link includes increases in suicide deaths, attempts and thoughts about suicide following media reports.

Who is affected?

Stories about suicide deaths have most impact on people who are already vulnerable.

This risk is increased when someone identifies with the person in the report, when the story is prominent, or about a celebrity.

A similar effect is detected if the story contains details about method of suicide or location, or glorifies the death in some way.

It’s dangerous to argue that such a body of evidence should just be discounted. Instead, it must be incorporated into our thinking, planning and practice about this issue.

This is something the Press Council and other peak media bodies are continuing to do, as evidenced by the release of the revised guidelines.

Being mindful and sensitive, however, doesn’t mean the media should always shy away from reporting suicide deaths or that it cannot cover the broader issue of suicide.

It means we must be clear that this isn’t a routine issue to cover. And we must communicate the complexity of the issue to the community, many of whom feel that more could and should be done to prevent such deaths.

Mitigating strategies

Evidence suggests mitigating strategies for reducing potential harm when suicide deaths are reported.

Examples of this include removing details about method or location, reducing prominence, seeking comment on the impact of the death on others, and including information on where to seek help.

All of these points have been outlined in the specific recommendations released by the APC today, keeping them in line with what evidence suggests is best practice.

In fact, recent Australian research indicates the media are doing much better now than in the past by using these strategies.

I am however, unsure of the value of keeping a “toll” of suicides. And given the lengthy and involved coronial process needed to determine whether a death is suicide, how would we manage this toll?

How would we avoid intruding into the private grief of each family where a suspected suicide had occurred?

More importantly, how would a toll help the community to understand how to prevent suicide or how to support those who may have been impacted by suicide?

Ways forward

What we need is to ensure that the suicide prevention sector is ready to work with the media on stories most likely to increase community understanding.

All organisations (and individuals) have a responsibility in this area. We need to ensure that any mass communication is one that is both safe and likely to be helpful to the community.

When reporting suicide deaths or discussing the issue of suicide in the media, we should pursue the following goals:

  • Improve the community’s understanding of what increases risk as well as what protects individuals, families and communities from suicide;

  • Increase awareness of the impact of suicide on families, friends, workplaces and communities. This may incorporate thoughtful stories about those bereaved by suicide;

  • Model how people can seek help and the types of strategies and services that can make a difference to those who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts.

The latter could perhaps be done by using the personal stories of people who have experienced suicidal thinking to describe what worked for them.

There’s no doubt that increasing media reporting about suicide and suicide deaths will increase awareness of the problem, but without thoughtful planning and a consideration of the evidence will it do anything to increase awareness of how to prevent deaths?

This is too important an issue to get wrong because failure means a very high cost to society.

More information about the evidence and current codes of practice and other resources.

Do you think the media reports news about suicide in a sensitive way? Leave your comments below