PCC and Editor’s Code Committee must act on suicide coverage

5 January 2006 – The publication by several UK national newspapers of a woman leaping to her death in London is both irresponsible and reprehensible, and not just because of the distress to friends and relatives of the deceased.

The ‘suicide leap’ pictures should not have been published. Evidence from reputable studies conducted over many years indicates the risk of copycat behaviour when this type of coverage occurs.

The decision to publish sensational images of this kind rests with editors – whether the photographs originate from professional journalists or so-called ‘citizen journalists’. Having created a market for ‘on-the-spot’ pictures they bear a heavy responsibility for the consequences of publication.

MediaWise has been concerned about this issue for many years, having dealt with complainants distressed by insensitive coverage of the suicide of loved ones. We have several times commended to the PCC and the Editor’s Code Committee the inclusion of an additional clause about suicide coverage, (most recently in our 2004 report Satisfaction Guaranteed? Press complaints systems under scrutiny).

The current Editor’s Code Committee Review provides an excellent opportunity to adopt the wording suggested by relatives of suicides who have had cause to complain about intrusive, insensitive or inaccurate coverage: ‘When reporting about suicide or suicide attempts care should be taken to avoid sensationalism and unnecessary detail, and particular consideration should be given to the likely impact on family members, especially children.’

In 2003 MediaWise produced guidelines about reporting of suicide following extensive consultations with mental health and suicide prevention agencies, the National Union of Journalists’ Ethics Council, and the International Federation of Journalists. They were sent to all UK newsrooms and have been widely distributed internationally, particularly in countries where graphic or lurid coverage of suicide is commonplace. Compliance with the guidelines would have halted publication of the ‘suicide leap’ pictures.

Suicide reporting is not a conventional part of journalism training, but MediaWise has developed training modules which could be adopted by both vocational and in-house trainers.

The outcry about coverage of the tragic death of Kathy Ward should alert editors to the value of having a specific clause in the Code of Practice and clear in-house policies on responsible coverage, whether or not the PCC agrees to consider complaints from third parties about reporting in this case.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 116)

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