REPORTING SUICIDE: GUIDELINES FOR JOURNALISTS FROM JOURNALISTS
The Institute of Maltese Journalists joined The PressWise Trust, the National Union of Journalists (UK and Ireland) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in recommending these guidelines, which were compiled in consultation with suicide prevention agencies. The aim of the guidelines is to assist print, broadcast and on-line journalists to appreciate the risks associated with suicide coverage, and suggest simple ways of avoiding unnecessary harm.
Sensitive reporting saves lives
Not all suicides are newsworthy. But when they are, it is less likely that others will attempt to take their own lives if media professionals handle the stories responsibly.
Sensitive reporting includes:
– consideration for the feelings of relatives;
– avoiding detailed descriptions of suicide methods;
– acknowledging the complexities of suicidal behaviour;
– providing information about where help and advice can be found.
Avoid sensational headlines, images, and language
In the aftermath of a suicide, relatives are especially vulnerable. They may feel anger, despair, guilt, incomprehension or shame. Publicity makes the situation worse, particularly for children. Consult with immediate family before publishing material that may not have been in the public domain. Some may welcome sympathetic media interest especially if a suicide occurs in unusual circumstances, but avoid unnecessary intrusion into grief and family privacy.
Publicising details of suicide methods can encourage imitation
It may be relevant to indicate how a person has died, but providing too much detail may encourage others to try these methods. Explicit descriptions can also cause additional distress to relatives and friends of the deceased, especially children.
Avoid speculation, especially about ‘celebrity’ suicides
Prominent figures are entitled to privacy, even if they kill themselves. Beware of gossip and rumours. Always check your sources and consult with relatives before publishing speculative comment that may be unfounded, untrue or hurtful to survivors.
Suicide is a complex issue, often linked to mental illness
It is neither helpful nor accurate to suggest that suicide occurs as a result of a single factor. Often there will be history of forms of mental illness like depression, and this should be acknowledged. Avoid giving the impression that suicide is a simple ‘solution’ to a particular problem; acknowledge that sudden death creates problems for family and friends.
Consider context – suicides in institutions deserve investigation
When people kill themselves while in the care of the authorities – in hospital, in police custody, in prison, or in other institutions, their deaths may raise important questions about levels of supervision and care. The public interest is best served if suspicions are investigated, and lessons learned that may prevent recurrences.
Challenge ‘myths’ about suicide
Avoid perpetuating popular misconceptions – like ‘those who threaten suicide are unlikely to do it’ or ‘if someone wants to kill themselves, nothing will stop them’. Our job is to report the facts and to try to explain the phenomenon, the circumstances and the wider issues.
Censorship or misinformation about suicide is unhelpful
Attitudes towards suicide vary from culture to culture, but media professionals should not seek to hide the facts. It is more important for the public to be aware of the phenomenon than to be ignorant of the warning signs or where to go for help to prevent suicide. Newsrooms should encourage debate among staff, and develop their own policies on suicide coverage.
Put people in touch with suicide prevention agencies
If a suicide story merits coverage there should be space or time to let people know where they can get help if the issues affect them. Newsrooms should ensure that they have up-to-date contact details of support organisations that can provide advice or counselling.
Journalists are vulnerable too – support colleagues
Working in the media involves stress, competition and unusual challenges, in addition to the pressures individuals face in their private lives. A willingness to share concerns and provide support should be a feature of professional relationships in the workplace, especially when colleagues experience emotional difficulties.