Suicide coverage: time to take stock

4 April 2006 – When people kill themselves we are all shocked. When newspapers are given the go-ahead to publish pictures of a suicide it is equally shocking.

The Press Complaints Commission has justified publication, by the London Evening Standard, The Sun and The Times, of a picture of a woman leaping to her death. Most newspapers decided against using the pictures.

In a hand-wringing adjudication the PCC explains that it cannot make judgements about ‘taste and decency’, yet it acknowledges that the Evening Standard merely assumed that the family had been informed before publishing a photograph of Katherine Ward’s death. One of the first rules of journalism is ‘Never assume anything: always check your facts’.

The Samaritans, whose guidelines were breached by the three newspapers, have expressed their disappointment at the adjudication. MediaWise regards it as yet another example of the PCC’s effrontery as a ‘self-regulator’. Under the guidelines we devised with the NUJ Ethics Council the photographs would not have appeared.

We have regularly reminded the PCC over many years about the sensitivities of suicide reporting, the risk of copycat behaviour, and the need for a special Clause in the Editors’ Code of Practice to highlight the need for care when reporting newsworthy suicides.

We have supplied the PCC with copies of Kathryn Williams and Keith Hawton’s 2001 study Suicidal Behaviour and the Media: Findings from a systematic review of research literature which clearly illustrates the link between coverage and suicidal behaviour from evidence around the world.

In the last two years alone we have three times commended the inclusion of a Clause in the Editors’ Code of Practice along the lines: ‘Particular care should be taken when reporting newsworthy suicides, to avoid sensationalism and unnecessary detail about suicide methods, and to consider the consequences for family members, especially children.’ It remains to be seen whether such advice will appear when the current revision of the Code is announced this month.

During April and May, MediaWise is conducting a survey of media professionals about suicide coverage, as part of the Shift Stigma programme run by the National Institute for Mental Health in England (NIMHE). The aim is to examine the efficacy of existing guidelines, training and newsroom policies.

A questionnaire for journalists can be completed online or downloaded from our website.

This is the latest development in our international Suicide and the Media Project (SAMP) which has been running since 2000. The guidelines we produced in 2003 with the NUJ Ethics Council have been welcomed by UK Editors and are in use internationally. This is not a matter of taste and decency, but of life and death. All the evidence suggest that sensitive reporting can save lives.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 121)

Recent Related Posts